Sunday, March 31, 2019

Black Gold for Your Garden: Compost

Composting Changed My Garden Life 

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of spring.  Composting Day.  It is that day each year when I get to dive into the piles that have been sitting all winter, and often times most of last year, and see what sort of magic has happened.  I Love Composting Day!! Soil is the key to everything you are trying to do in your garden.  It is the foundation that your plants use to create their roots, leaves, and fruit.  The healthier your soil is, the healthier your plants are and they therefore provide even healthier food for your and your family.  Compost is a critical element in our soil building plan, and I hope that the information we have here will inspire you to start a compost pile of your own.  
Let me start by stating that I am not perfect, and those of you who have been composting longer than I have will likely find multiple things wrong with my approach.  But I have realized in my experience that that is ok.  Composting doesn't have to follow all the rules.  Now don't get me wrong, the rules certainly help the process along, and I will detail which rules I broke and what the impact was to the pile from yesterdays turning.  But here is the thing everyone needs to understand.......

Compost Happens!! 

I am serious.  If you just pile some organic matter up and let it sit for a while, it will compost eventually.  What we do by managing our piles is help the process happen more quickly and with more control on the outcome.  Lets break this all down and see what we ended up with this spring.  

Cover Your Pile to Control Moisture Input

The piles I turned yesterday were sloppy wet.... like in a bad way.  This causes a couple problems.  First of all, your pile can get no air since it gets waterlogged.  This leads to anaerobic environments which don't help with breaking down material the way we might want.  I don't raise any pigs here....but yesterday for a brief while, it smelled like I did.  The first pile was ripe to say the least.  So, lesson learned, it might be a good idea to actually cover the pile the way they say you should. 

Watch that Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio (More Carbon 3:1 Nitrogen) 

Part of my lazy composting approach, especially in the late fall and all winter, is to just keep adding "stuff" to the pile.  This generally results in a gross input of nitrogen rich material, without much carbon added.  We threw in multiple hole pumpkins, squash, and other things from our fall decorating, and didn't attempt to balance them out with some straw or shredded paper as a carbon source.  Lots of veggie scraps, coffee grounds, and all sorts of other stuff.  Bottom line, we needed more carbon, which isn't much of a surprise to me as this is often the case with my piles in the spring.  That is why I generally layer them with chicken bedding from our coop and/or shredded paper and cardboard once I start turning them.  The correct carbon to nitrogen ratio is generally reported as 3:1.  You want more carbon than nitrogen when composting.

The Smaller the Material the Better

I do some landscape maintenance for a few clients each year, and in the fall I end up with piles of spent plants, trimmings, and other material that I know will eventually break down.  But instead of trying to run it all through the leaf shredder, chipper, or even the lawnmower, I just add it to the pile as is.  While there isn't anything wrong with this, it does make it interesting when it comes time to turn those piles, and I did discover that the ornamental grasses tended to mat together.  Eventually, all this material will break down, but it will take longer than if I had use some physical means to physically break down these elements before adding them to the pile.  Maybe this year I will try and shred them first somehow. 

Hot Composting Plan: Building the Piles

A couple years ago I stumbled upon this method known as Hot Composting.  The quick version of this method is lots and I mean lots of pile turning.  If you're physically capable of doing the work, it is an amazing method.  I start each pile with a layer of chicken bedding, and then wet it down.  It is important to keep the pile wet throughout the formation.  Then I turn part of the existing pile on top of that.  Again, wet this down, but it was very wet already so I didn't have to had much.  Then another layer of bedding, more compost from the pile, bedding, more compost etc.  Always making sure to keep some water in the pile along the way.  I did notice that I had a bit of dry material in the back of the piles, so at the end I didn't have to add any additional carbon sources.  In the spring like this, my go to carbon sources are cardboard and shredded paper, but this year, their addition wasn't necessary.  By the time we were done, the pile was huge.  Might be the biggest pile I have ever made honestly.  

You can see in the photos that the two end bays of my composting area are open to each other, and that was created purposefully to facilitate the hot composting process.  Now that the pile is made, we will carefully monitor its temperature using a composting thermometer.  This tool is critical as it allows us to determine when the interior composting process is beginning to slow.  In my experience this is usually caused by the excessive amount of heat within the pile caused by the microbes and bacteria doing their thing.  

Once they dry the pile out, they slow down.  To keep them going we need a new introduction of water and in some cases, air, as the pile will begin to settle.  This is when we turn the pile, trying our best to move material from the outside of the pile towards the middle as we go.  Similar to before, it will be layering the new pile, then watering it down, next layer, more water etc. If I find any areas that look like they need more carbon I will add in some shredded paper to increase the carbon to nitrogen ratios some.  My instincts right now actually is that I will be doing this at least a little bit on the first turning.  There was quite a bit of moisture and mucky stuff in the pile, but we will see. Its a bit like making pancake batter without following the recipe.... Does anyone else do that?..... mix, water....whoops too much water, more mix.... wait, now its too thick.... add water until, ahhh just right.  

Depending upon outside temperatures, carbon to nitrogen ratios(3:1 is ideal), and moisture, your pile could be turned as often as once a week.  Your turning schedule though need not be regimented.  Turning too early just means more work for you as there would have been more continued breakdown of material in the pile, but it doesn't hurt anything.  And turning too late simple means that there were a few days that the pile wasn't efficiently breaking down material, but it will start again once you turn it.  

You will be amazed at how quickly the pile transforms using this method. Within 4-6 weeks, you will begin shifting out high quality compost that you can add to your garden beds, planters, and seed starting mixes.  I never fail to be amazed at the outcome.  Its like magic. 

Cold Composting Works Too

Yesterdays efforts also yielded some evidence of another composting method, and that is the cold composting method, which involves much less effort, at least as far as the turning goes, than the hot method previously described.  

After I moved the first pile into the hot composting area, I decided to transfer the second pile into the now empty bay next to it.  My theory being that simply turning the pile would get it going again, move some of the exterior material into the middle of the pile, and if nothing else, stage it up for the next round of hot composting a month or so from now. 

The deeper I got into the pile though, the more it became apparent that the material on the bottom was fully composted.  Started there last spring I believe, it had some evidence of sheets of cardboard being added (I believe I had some scraps from construction projects my students had done in class) and was a very nicely broken down compost.  Once I realized this, I grabbed my compost sifter and began shaking it out into storage totes for safe keeping and was pleased to find that I did in fact have some amazing, ready to use compost....and actually quite a bit of it.  This compost will be added to growing beds, used in our seed starting mixes as we experiment with soil blocking, and spread around the garden under existing plants, such as within our raspberry beds to give them an added boost.  

My compost sifter is a simple unit that I slapped together years ago.  It is simply a milk crate with a piece of hardware cloth across the bottom that I wired into place.  I put two or three scoops of finished compost into the basket, hold it over whatever my collection tray is, and shake the whole lot until the finer material has been forced out and the large chunks remain behind. Its a very simple approach that yields an effective separation of the large material that we might not want to add to our seed starting mixes.  Two potential uses for this large material is to simply add it to your compost piles again for further break down, or throw it into the bottom of your large pots and allow its bulk to help fill your containers.  Often this material in my piles is woody material that would make a great water sink in the bottom of large planting pots.  Sort of a micro Hugel bed basically.  

Black Gold is Amazing!  Get to Composting!  

If you haven't yet started composting, let me tell you that it is totally worth whatever effort it might take.  It doesn't have to be an expensive process.  While I love the fancy compost tumbler that I got at a yard sale last year, I have gotten amazing results for years just using a few old pallets, a pitchfork, and some patience. Start piling up your organic matter.  Start looking at the resources you are throwing out that could instead be food for your garden.  Make a pile.  You will be amazed at how it will transform your garden!  

If you are into this sort of thing, there is more information over at our website which you can view here. There is loads of information about gardening, a whole section on composting, and even some ideas about home remodeling!  Come check it out.  We'll keep posting here on the blog, and do our best to continue to add more content to the website as well.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Uses for Your Spring Weeds

I believe I read somewhere, that a weed is nothing more than a plant no one has found a use for.  It is with that in mind that I draft this post for all of you.  I have found at least a couple good uses for weeds here that I find myself turning to each spring. There are countless others that I have read about as well, but have yet to have found the time to try.  Did you know you can mike wine from dandelion flowers?  Who knew!!

Here are some of my favorite uses for weeds

Perhaps the most obvious use for weeds is to add them to the compost, which is something we do often!  I love the addition of green material that it adds to our piles, and they often come with a bit of soil that helps boost the microbial life in the pile and help get it cooking. Composting is super easy.  Just pile up your organic matter some place and let it sit for a while.  Or invest in one of those fancy rolling compost tumblers.  We picked one up at a yard sale last year and I am loving it so far this spring!

I believe fully that the single most important thing we can do to have a thriving yard and garden, is understand the importance of building soil.  Organic material is the foundation of healthy soil, which feeds plant growth in a perpetual cycle.  By composting weeds, we can return them to the soil, along with some of the nutrients they removed when they were growing.  Composting also allows for the addition of other resources, such as shredded paper, kitchen scraps, even paper towels and coffee filters.  Which means adding weeds to the pile doesn't just return nutrients back to the soil, it helps bring extra nutrients to the soil, and we end up with more soil than we started with, which is an excellent problem to have.

My second favorite use for weeds is as feed for animals.  Here at our home and garden we keep chickens and rabbits.  A few years back I started raising meat rabbits as part of my homesteading journey.  Rabbits breed like well, rabbits, and thus make a great meat source for those interested in growing their own.  For me however, they have ended up being an excellent producer of fertilizer for the garden, as well as a very useful place to dispose of weeds from around the yard.  They love them, and I get a pelleted soil boosting miracle within a few days. Rabbit droppings don't need to be composted before adding them directly to the soil, so feel free to use them whenever you need them.

Chickens on the other hand, have what is known as hot manure, which means it must be aged and composted before adding it to your growing areas, but the beautiful thing about it, is that it is an amazing accelerator of the composting process in your pile.  Adding garden weeds and grass clippings to the diet of your chickens will result in a dense yellow yoke that is amazing.  During this time of year, my yokes are orange more than yellow, and I know its due to the extra green in their diet, along with all the worms hiding in the roots of those weeds.  And, if you are using deep bedding like I am in the chicken coop, anything they don't consume will just get added to the compost pile later.

Build Soil 

Whatever you do in your yard and garden, remember above all else that the soil is the foundation for everything you are trying to grow.  If the soil isn't healthy, then your plants will suffer and fail to reach their full potential. So take my advice and don't waste those weeds by throwing them into the trash can.  Use them to build even more soil.  It's well worth the effort.

If you are into this sort of thing, there is more information over at our original web site which you can view here. There is loads of information about gardening, composting, and even some ideas about home remodeling!  Come check it out.  We'll keep posting here on the blog, and do our best to continue to add more content to the website as well.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Deep Mulch Your Garden

I Absolutely Love Mulch

If there is one single thing that you learn from this blog it is the importance of mulch in your garden!  It has completely transformed my garden space into an amazing area that I love to be in.  Mind you its nothing fancy, and your not likely going to see it in a magazine any time soon.  But folks I can guarantee you that I have some amazing soil and grow some amazing plants and its all because of mulch. 

My Garden is a Drive Way

A view from the garden area looking towards our driveway.  Note that the
gravel forming the base of the driveway is also under our garden. 
Seriously.... you might think you read that wrong, but it is basically sitting on top of a gravel road.  When we moved into this house, the front corner of the property had been used as a staging area next to a couple sheds.  There was nothing growing there.  It was just gravel basically.  (You can see in the picture that the driveway is literally right next to the garden.)  But, I didn't let that stop me.  It was the south side of the property which made it perfect.  I had learned and practiced straw bale gardening techniques, and I had some experience with raised beds, so I proceeded to just start growing.  I started with a raised bed or two and instantly started a compost pile.  I brought in hay, straw, and all the grass clippings from my rather large lawn for a whole year and started mulching around the raised beds.  When the straw broke down, I added it to the compost or paths and eventually formed the small raised beds I have now out of some old scrap materials I had laying around and branches from tree removal projects.  Slowly but surely my garden space began to take form, and all the while, I was mulching with whatever I could find, and adding compost to the tops of the growing spaces. 

And then I finally decided to buy into the deep mulching method I had seen all over the internet.  Sometimes called Back to Eden, this method involves just piling up shredded tree branches.  Some practitioners even plant directly into this mix....which works by the way.  I did it on a small scale last year myself. I decided the best way to use this in the space that I had built was to mulch my paths with this stuff, and that is exactly what I started doing last year, and I love it!  

Never Leave the Soil Bare

For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, let me give you the quick version of this theory.  First rule....nature never leaves soil bare.  Bare soil is lost to wind and water erosion, so its critical to keep the soil surface covered.  Think of the forest floor as an example.  Trees loose their leaves each fall, grass and other low growing plants die back.  This biomass stays put, buried by snow in temperate regions, and is slowly worked on by the worms, bacteria, and other small organisms who convert it into usable soil.  This provides nutrients to the plants, who grow and die again, returning their leaves back to forest floor.... its a continual cycle.  

A view into the garden, still covered with mulch from last year's efforts. 
Our garden is far from this cycle.  Each year we grow a crop, harvest it, which is code for take it away, and then take time each fall to clean up and remove all the old, dead plants so our garden is ready to plant in the fall again.  The nutrients from the soil are used and then exported off site, with no chance of being returned to keep the cycle going.  If you compost your spent plants, bring your fall leaves into your garden, or add mulch, your are helping add these missing elements to the cycle, which builds amazing soil!

Which brings me to the paths in my garden.  Shredded trees are an amazing mixture of green leaves and woody stems.  When given enough time, this creates an amazing structure for building soil.  The greens break down into soil, usually with the help of worms and all those other organisms I mentioned, and the woody bits act as a sponge holding water and creating a very enjoyable surface to walk on.  Trust me.  I have mulched my paths with fall leaves, grass clippings, straw, alfalfa hay, pine needles, you name it.  Nothing, and I mean nothing compares to shredded trees.  Its amazing.  

The same section of the garden covered in a new round of shredded tree
mulch. This stuff came from a pile that had been aged so it has a rich, dark
color and is already beginning to break down. 
Now, to be clear, I am not opposed to any of those other things I mentioned.  In fact, I still use them.  But I cover them with the shreds as soon as I can.  You see for me, my paths are more than just paths, they are more like a giant composting blanket for my garden.  The worms love the environment created by this mixture.  I know that anything I plant on the edge of my growing beds is going to have roots that find their way into the soil created by these paths.  So I am not opposed to adding some grass clippings or fall leaves to this mixture.  The more diversity we can add the better soil it will create. 

As an added bonus, like I mentioned before, I can plant directly into my paths, which is something I never thought I would say.  Last year I had some flowers that I needed to plant, and I didn't really have a space that I felt would work, so I panted them into the edge of the path as an experiment.  They grew like crazy.  I was so impressed by this that I plan to expand the concept this year and plant even more plants, like herbs maybe, into the nooks and out of the way spaces scattered throughout the garden space.

If you like me have been on the fence about this shredded tree, deep mulch thing..... trust me when I tell you it is for real.  I can't believe how well it has worked and completely changed the feel of my garden for the better.  I plan to add more every spring if I can get my hands on it and will continue to do so year after year. 

As always, if you are into this sort of thing, there is more information over at our web site which you can view here. There is loads of information about gardening, composting, and even some ideas about home remodeling!  Come check it out.  We'll keep posting here on the blog, and do our best to continue to add more content to the website as well.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mealworm Mayhem

Mealworms Amaze Me

A few year back I was really getting into the chicken thing.  My Pintrest boards were full of all these crazy ideas from Chicken Tractors, to Chunnels (chicken tunnels around your garden) and custom feed mixes... I even spent a bit of time fermenting their feed and sprouting seeds for my flock.  All of which were tons of fun and maybe something I will visit again for this blog.  

But one of the coolest discoveries was mealworm farming. The concept seemed simple enough.  Mix some chicken feed with some oatmeal and other grains, throw in a chunk of apple or potato and go get yourself some meal worms.  Then you just sit back and wait and watch the mealworms appear out of nowhere.... at least that's what they were all saying online. But....

Where Do You Get Mealworms?  

Well I am sure there are lots of options, Amazon comes to mind.... you can buy anything on there.  That's where I get the red wigglers for my worm farms actually. But for me, it was as simple as a quick drive down to the local pet store. I bought a small container of maybe a dozen mealworms.  One of those, take them home to feed your fish or lizard type packages.... but I gave them a home and let them grow.  And that is where the true magic of this story comes in.  From that one single box of a dozen or so worms, I now have hundreds if not thousands of mealworms.  And it has been just about as easy as everyone said it would be.  I just leave them alone 90% of the time, and they live, grow, and reproduce in the containers I give them.  Its pretty amazing when you think about it.

How Do I Grow My Mealworms

The concept is pretty simple.  Like most small pets they need just a few basic things.  A place to live, something to eat and drink, and that is about it. For mealworms, it couldn't be easier.  I am fond of the three drawer storage bins you can get for storing reams of paper, or even those drawers that fit under your bed for storage if you want a huge farm. To these I add a mixture of layer crumbles, and whatever grain I can find.  Might be just a C.O.B mixture (Corn, Oats, Barley) or even oatmeal from the grocery story.  This mixture is both their home, and their food, and in time, they will completely consume it down to nothing but a dusty substance called frass, which is basically their waste. You also want to throw in a chunk of apple, carrot, potato, radish, etc. so they have something to "drink."  I don't worry if it molds as they don't seem to mind themselves. When I want to find mealworms, I just find the most recent veggie addition and they are usually piled up underneath it.  That's it.  Seriously.  Now just walk away and be really patient, until the magic starts to happen. 

Mealworm Life Cycle (The Magic)


Mealworms follow a standard insect life cycle, in fact this makes them one of the perfect examples of this life cycle to study.  They start life as an egg and then hatch into what is known as larva.  Mealworms start life as a tiny version of what you are most familiar with, and slowly grow into the much larger worms that we buy freeze dried in the feed store, or feed our chickens or other pets live.  From there, they pupate and form a pupa.  The first time I saw one, it kinda freaked me out as I didn't know what it was right off the bat.  They are kind of a white crazy looking little insect like thing with no legs, and when you pick them up, their tails wiggle.  What is happening inside is similar to the caterpillar inside its cocoon, our worm is turning into its adult form, which is a little black beetle.  Once you have adult beetles running around inside your farm, the cycle is about to complete itself as they live to simply mate and lay as many eggs as possible before they die. 

If you started like me, your dozen or so meal worms are about to lay lots of eggs, and given time, those eggs will go through the same life cycle before they themselves are adults laying a lot of eggs.  If you don't feed very many worms early on, then pretty soon you have an amazing population explosion!  

Here are some things that I found helpful along the way.  First of all, seriously don't stress about them.  Its best to just forget about them and let them do their thing, checking on them only to make sure they have something still moist to get water from.  I would also occasionally remove the old, dehydrated remains of whatever was in there and throw it into my compost piles on occasion.  

Secondly, consider how you want to expand.  One method that I used when I was ready to start new colonies was to simple begin removing the pupa and placing them into a fresh, new container.  Very soon I would have adults and shortly after hundreds of tiny little mealworms. 

Dealing with their waste is something to consider as well.  It is very dusty and blows around easily.  I like to use this to my benefit and use a blower or fan to separate the worms from the frass.  Yes you might loose a few small worms, and you are certainly blowing eggs all over the place so mind where you choose to do this, but it turned out to be a very effective way to separate the worms out so that I could get  them some new bedding to chew through. 

Finally, you want to think about how you are going to feed them to your flock.  Casting them on the ground will teach you how fast they seem to be able to burrow into the ground to escape.  I like to use them as a treat and set a small pan or dish on the ground in the coop or even hold it for the chickens to come and eat out of.  This way, I know that the majority of the worms get eaten.  And don't worry about taking a bit of bedding with you.... after all, its just chicken food. 

All in all I have to say I have really enjoyed raising mealworms and find it to be a useful and easy addition to the diet I am able to provide my small flock of chickens.  If you have animals that might enjoy some fresh mealworms, consider starting your own small farm and growing your own. 

I am working on a short video I took of the last bedding changing event and once I have it uploaded, I will be sure to get it posted here as well.  As always, there is more information over at our original web site which you can view here

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Greenhouse/Potting Shed

I Love This Time of Year

Yesterday we were blessed with another beautiful spring day, and this morning, I am feeling it!  But, I was finally able to get into the front section of our greenhouse/chicken coop combo and get some stuff done.  And I couldn't be happier with the results.

On this side of our greenhouse we store the chickens feed, and also plan 
on potting the seeds here.  This photo, and all those on this page was taken 
from within the chicken coop portion of our structure. 
This past fall I made a decision that I wanted to have a space here that would allow me to start some plants each spring, keep them growing, and maybe even have a little space to grow some things in the ground but with some protection.  It didn't take me long to realize that our existing old greenhouse would be perfect.  It was after all a fully functional greenhouse.

However, I had been using it for a chicken coop pretty much ever since we moved in here.  which is a role that is serves exceptionally well by the way.  I got the idea from Joel Salatin at Polyface farms and have been housing my chickens and rabbits in this greenhouse every winter.  But there is one problem with it, at least the way that I have been doing it, and that is the dust.
Here you can see the black bark mulch that we used for 
the floor.  Its thick enough to keep us from walking in the 
mud that may result from our gardening efforts, and should
help keep some moisture in the soil once we plant inside
the space. 

I like to use the deep litter method in my chicken coops, mostly for the great resource it generates for our compost piles.  So anywhere I house chickens I lay out tons of carbon rich materials right on the floor.  All of my coops have open floors to the ground under them, so there is access to whatever soil life there might be.  I throw straw, shredded paper, sawdust, fall leaves etc. in mass and then make sure to throw scratch grains out often.  This gets the chickens scratching, which turns the manure into the carbon mix and we have virtually no smell as a result of this approach.  Its a great system....but it generates the dust storm mentioned before if you don't keep the whole thing slightly damp and when its freezing outside, that's hard to do.

It was for this reason that the old chain link gate had to be replaced with a new wall across the middle of the coop.  If I was going to try and grow food in this space, I had to try and find a way to keep the dust in check to some extent so the seedlings and plants weren't dusted daily when the chickens were present at least until they move out into their summer homes. I scrounged around and found some old metal roofing that would make a perfect, water proof wall and within an afternoon had a functional wall that would at least offer a chance at keeping the dust in check.

This is where I plan to do most of the growing.  Its the east side of the structure,
so it should get the most afternoon light.  The brown dirt under the temporary
saw horse table is for growing plants in the ground.
Yesterday I finally found time for the total clean out of the front portion of this coop that it had been needing for growing activities to begin.  It was still covered in dust from before and the floor needed  some attention as well if I was going to be growing and watering in that space.  So I took everything out and hosed the entire space down..... and I mean all of it.  I sprayed the walls, the roof, the shelves, and the floor.  I watched the brown liquid come from places I couldn't have imagined and just kept flooding that space until it felt clean enough to grow in.  Once the puddles started forming I covered the floor with a thick layer of old landscaping mulch we had laying around from two or three years ago.  It happens to be black which might help it absorb some heat from the sun on nice days and just like that, an old dusty shed was transformed into a potting shed ready for spring planting!  I cannot wait to get out there in the next few days and get some seeds started!

I am working on a short video of this project and once I have it uploaded, I will be sure to get it posted here as well.  As always, there is more information over at our original web site which you can view here

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Soil Blocking Rocks!!!

Soil Blocking Rocks!  

No seriously.... If you have never seen it done, it is seriously amazing!  Let me tell you my experience as a newbie soil blocker.

Today we experimented with soil blocking for the first time.  I have my students working on a plant growing project down at school and we decided to give soil blocking a try.... No real reason to have tried it out at home or anything before taking down to school right!  I have to say though, it ended up being a great day!!

For those of you who have never heard of it, soil blocking is what happens when you take the correct mixture of soil type stuff, soak it up really good, and smash it into this amazing little tool that spits out these perfect little blocks of soil.  Its kinda like making sand castles, but way cooler because its spring loaded!  Once you pop those puppies out into planting trays, you deposit a seed or two in each one and your off and growing.  I am super anxious to see how this project goes.

I am still new to this whole blogging thing, but I will try and get a couple pics on here soon if I can't figure it out tonight.  (Oh yeah I figured it out!!)  For now, let me tell you our soil mixture from today.  I purchased everything that I needed from the home depot to get the project going.

Here is our base mixture:

3 Parts Compost (We used Miracle Grow Garden Soil)
2 Parts Peat Moss (Big bale of it will last forever based on today)
1 Part Coco Coir/Perlite  (They had this in stock and I was interested in adding Coir)
1 Part Vermiculite
2 Tbs Organic Fertilizer  (We used Espoma Veggie Fertilizer because I could recognize the ingredients)
2 Tbs Play Sand (I thought it would help add some structure)

We put all this in a tub and then sifted our way through the whole mix, removing any large chunks of stuff we came across.  We pulled out a decent amount of sticks and twigs that we were not interested in putting through our soil blockers, especially the micro block maker.  The resulting mixture worked very well and we were able to make hundreds of micro blocks and close to 75 or so larger size blocks.

We did learn a few tricks from all our research.  We added a piece of cardboard to every 10/20 tray before placing the blocks in it.... we had seen some indications that the smooth surface would be better for depositing our blocks on, and once saturated, it would help keep the blocks from drying out as easily.  More on that later as time is given to test the results.

I did find seeding some seeds to be.... interesting.  It was fairly time consuming to seed the micro blocks, and in fact on one tray I just sprinkled seeds all over the whole thing as an experiment.  I don't care how you do it, placing 200 lettuce seeds into individual tiny blocks is time consuming.... especially if you try and work them into the block at all so they are at least slightly covered in soil. But, we will see how it all goes.  (UPDATE:  The sprinkled tray grew amazingly well and far exceeded the performance of every other tray.  I will do lettuce in micro blocks that way from now on.) 

There is still much to learn and I will try and keep everyone updated.  Watering them will be interesting and I have no idea how well they will hold water under the lights once they start growing.  Its a work in progress, but so far at least, I am very excited about how well it worked today and plan to run further experiments throughout the growing season.

Today we were able to plant the following things:

Lettuce (Like, a lot of lettuce)
Collard Greens
Red Cabbage
Green Cabbage
Alyssum Flowers
Ground Cherries
Banana Melons
French Melons

Don't forget, we have a pile of additional information over at our other website which you can view here.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Itch of Spring

Well, here we go.  I am diving into this thing called Blogger for the first time in my life.  We'll see how it goes.  I have heard so much about blogging, but I don't know that I fully understand it just yet....but we're going to try.  

I may set up more than one blog to connect to my larger project, which is the main website we are building over in Google Sites.  A brain child we cooked up to share our journey through home remodel projects, garden and landscaping projects, and our journey into a bit of sustainability.  This blog, will focus on the growing side of all we have going, and I will attempt to focus my efforts on talking about the yard and garden and what were doing in the hope that it will benefit those of you interested in trying some of our methods out for yourself. 

With that, lets get to the good stuff!!  

Can anyone else feel it or just me??  Spring is in the air and I have an itch to get out into the garden!  I have a number of plans for this year that I just can't wait to get off the ground.  We are in the middle of a pile of different projects here and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they go smoothly and don't keep me from getting what I need to get done outside.  Here is a short list of plans I have for the next few weeks.  

1.  Start some seeds in the greenhouses.  We are fortunate to have two greenhouses here on the property, one made from a crude hoop house we built years ago out of cattle panels as a mobile chicken run.  I told my uncle then that it would make a great greenhouse, so when he was done with it, he let me take it and now it is the greenhouse I envisioned it could be.  We also have an old existing greenhouse on the property that is badly in need of some newer sheeting, but for now, its functional.  I have been using it as a housing option during the winter for our chickens and rabbits, an idea I got from Polyface Farms which has worked incredibly well for us.  This past fall however, I built a wall in the middle, separating the south side of the house into a growing space, separate from the chickens and rabbit pens.  I am anxious to get in there and see if we can get anything to grow. Now that the weather has started to warm up, these spaces are getting plenty warm during the day to make something happen so we'll see. 

2.  Soil Blocking.  As part of the seed starting this year I am going to be experimenting for the first time with soil blocking.  I have always used seed starting trays and modules, but I am excited to have a chance to use the soil blocking method and see how it goes.  I will be sure to post some updates on that along the way. 

3.  Compost Maintenance.  I have been composting for a few years now, but it seems every year I get more and more into it.  This year is no different as I have two large piles that have been sitting all winter and are ready for a good turning over to get things cranking again.  My general protocol for this is to clear out the summer chicken house of all its bedding.  I then take the over wintered piles, and layer them with layers of the aged chicken bedding.  I find that this gets a nice hot pile going and results in some great compost within a few months if I turn it regularly, which is just in time for a good top dressing in my beds as the summer veggies are starting to take off. 

4.  Clean Up the Beds.  I always seem to overwinter a few things each year that should or shouldn't have been left.  This year I think the local deer herd has enjoyed the Kale plants I let go all winter....which by the way grew for an amazingly long time.  If you have never grown kale, holy cow talk about cold hardy.  I will be loading my garden with extra kale plants late this summer.  I couldn't believe how well it grew into the winter. At any rate, its time that they get pulled and thrown into the compost.  There are some vines that need to be pruned, weeds just starting to poke through, and more than a few places where plants have volunteered and need to be relocated.   

5.  Fruit Tree Maintenance.  Like the grape vines in the garden, I have a few trees scattered around the property that need some attention.  I probably should have pruned them before the weather started warming up like it is now, but maybe I still have some time.  I might even break out the dormant oil spray and hit a few of the trees to try and keep the pests in check some this year. By the way.... read labels.... Did you know that the dormant oil spray you buy in the garden section is just mineral oil with an emulsifier?  That fancy "e" word just means a drop or two of soap to help break up the oil when you mix it with water...... I bet you can get soap and mineral oil way cheaper at the drug store!  

The way things seem to go around here, that's a pretty good list.  With any luck, here in the next couple weeks I can get at least a start on a few of these tasks.  

Ready or not my gardening friends, spring has sprung for a lot of us..... and I for one, couldn't be happier!