A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

How To Make Your Own Potting Soil in Your Greenhouse Paths - Using Worms

Local and Sustainable Soil-Building 101

Here is one of our greenhouses in mid-Spring. Note how the paths are filled deep with straw and other "organic-matter". As we water the plants and walk over the beds, we help the worms and micro-organisms turn this dead plant-material into nutrient-dense compost for next year's soil.
For those of us with greenhouses in which we plant directly in the ground (as opposed to using the GH to protect seedlings in pots, on tables) the necessary pathways between planting beds can seem like a lot of wasted space. Over the years, we've developed a method of composting right in the paths, creating habitat for worms and micro-organisms so that, over the course of the growing season we generate (and then harvest) large amounts of fine, high-quality worm-compost using locally available materials often considered "waste" products. We describe our methods below.

"Veganic" method for creating soil-fertility: Over the last few years we have become increasingly convinced that moving toward a veganic method of farming makes a whole lot of sense from several perspectives. Veganic agriculture is defined as:
...an approach to growing plant-foods that encompasses a respect for animals, the environment, and human health. Also known as "stockfree" "vegan organic" and "plant-based," this is a form of agriculture that goes further than organic standards, by eliminating the use of products that are derived from confined animals and by encouraging the presence of wild native animals on the farmland. (LINK: Intro to Veganics)
For many farmers\gardeners, if not most, fertilizing the soil means adding some type of manure and\or other animal-based products such as bone meal, fish meal, blood meal, feather meal, etc. Here at the Sharing Gardens, we are interested in developing, and demonstrating ways of growing food that uses local materials, gathered in a sustainable way with a gentle impact on the environment.
"Veganic" agriculture: good for the Earth, good for our health.
Here is our current method of building our soil-fertility - right in the paths of our greenhouses!

Gathering Materials: Our method of gardening requires massive amounts of "organic matter" (leaves, straw, grass-clippings etc). In the many years since we started the Sharing Gardens (2009) we have developed relationships with the people in, and around our small town encouraging them to bring us these materials instead of burning them or sending them to the land-fill.
One of our neighbors brings us many trailers full of leaves each Fall. He used to burn them. Now he uses some to mulch his own garden-beds but still has plenty of surplus to share with us.
Our land is over three-acres. We have left much of it as grass so that we can harvest this valuable resource. (LINK-Grass Clippings and Leaves for Soil Fertility). When we have surplus from mulching our plants, we spread it in the greenhouse-paths to feed the worms and micro-organisms.
A System for Collection: For many years, the only people who brought us leaves and grass-clippings were those we had made a personal connection with. In 2017, a teacher from our town's Grade School approached us about doing a volunteer project with her students to help the Sharing Gardens. We spent a morning with the students and raked up over 35 big bags of leaves around town! (LINK: Yes, Money Really Does Grow On Trees!) In the Fall of 2018, our city-hall contacted us about inserting a notice in people's water-bills encouraging them to bring their leaves to our garden. We estimate this yielded another close to 50 bags of leaves. We imagine that in future years that number will grow as people hear about the program. LINK: Monroe Leaf Drive
Here's the sign we painted and set up along the road in front of our house for the 2018 leaf-drive.
As people donate their leaves, we hang the bags out to dry on a clothes-line in our greenhouse and roll them into bundles of 5-6. We feel strongly about minimizing the use of plastics so any time a bag can be re-used is a real bonus!
We set up this station in our front yard. The trash-can has bundles of leaf-bags for re-use.
In the flier that was mailed to our town, we included these important guidelines:
Please no animal waste, trash or sticks/branches, no holly or roses (too sharp), or black walnut leaves (they can kill plants - LINK). Just leaves and grass 😊.
Spreading materials: Since our method of creating soil is cyclic, we could begin at any point in the process but if you are just getting started, the first step is to spread the materials. We begin this process at the end of Autumn as we are dismantling the tomato-cages, pulling up pepper-plants and weeding the beds in preparation for the following Spring.
Here is a greenhouse path that has been "harvested" of its worm-compost. It is ready for new materials to be added.
After cleaning all of last season's plant material out of the beds, cutting it into small pieces and laying it in the paths, we cover it with layers of leaves or straw, or whatever we have available.

One of our neighbors thatched his lawn and brought all that wonderful grass "hay" for us to use. Here is a college student/volunteer spreading it by the tub-full.
Llyn, spreading fresh grass-clippings on top of straw.
The need for sides on your beds: With this method, it is important that your paths and beds be separated with sides so your soil doesn't mix with the materials in the paths.
Chris has made many of our greenhouse beds with recycled fence-boards held in place with stakes driven into the ground. We have used plywood ripped into six-inch strips too.
Creating worm-compost all season-long: From Spring through late Summer we continue to add organic-matter as it becomes available. By watering the beds and walking on the paths we help the worms and other "micro-livestock" to break down the materials and turn them into soil.
This picture was taken in April. Note fresh grass-clippings in center and right pathways. Straw has yet to be covered with grass on left-pathway. Llyn is watering the bed of lettuce and waters the paths too, to help in the decomposition process.
During the growing season, the worms and micro-organisms are 'digesting' all this material from below. On tours of the greenhouses we often pull back the mulch to show people the thriving colonies of red-wiggler worms that live in our paths. Many times we can show them worm-eggs as well and little worm tunnels they have formed down into the rich, black compost.
Another benefit of this style of greenhouse gardening is that the mulched paths are so pleasant to kneel on. Also, many plant roots (figs pictured here) will reach their roots out into the paths and be fed by this 'living compost' through the growing season. (Pictured: Bella and Adri harvesting potatoes).
Harvesting worm-castings: We stop adding organic matter by late summer. This means there is less material to move out of the way when it's time to harvest our worm-compost. This 'undigested' material is temporarily gathered in tubs, or piles and then returned to the paths after the worm-compost has been gathered.
Here, Chris scoops up the compost with a flat, hand-trowel. We collected fourteen, five-gallon buckets from this one, forty-foot path!
A flat shovel works well too.
Sifting and storing worm-compost:
This homemade sifter works well to remove large material and give the finished product a uniform texture. The screen is made with "hardware cloth", a wire-mesh with 1/2" holes.
After sifting, we often store the worm compost in re-purposed pellet-stove plastic bags. Storing them in this way preserves the material's moisture.
Mixing soil and starting seedlings: In the past few years we have been fortunate to have Used-soil donated from two-different nurseries at the end of their growing seasons. Though the nutrient-content of the soil is mostly depleted, the structure of the soil is still excellent as it is high in organic-matter, perlite and other substances to keep the soil light and fluffy. We are careful to only accept soil-donations from 'organic' growers (no herbicides/pesticides). Our mix-ratio is 'one-part' worm compost to 'two-parts' depleted soil.

If you don't have access to previously-used soil, there are many recipes on-line for making your own. Typically they include coconut coir (a more-renewable resource than peat-moss) and sand or perlite - so the soil drains well, and compost for fertility. Use the worm-compost outlined in this article in place of the regular compost.
Seedlings in our home-grown soil, Spring 2018.
Preparing beds: We also use the worm compost to fertilize our raised beds.
Chris spreading a layer of worm-compost in greenhouse beds. Note last year's tomatoes and other plant material in pathways (before we've added leaves on top). Excellent worm food!
Soil fertility is improved by adding wood-ash and coffee grounds: (LINK: Coffee and Ashes for Fertility)
Spreading coffee-grounds: We have a friend who regularly stops by a local coffee shop and collects coffee grounds for us. Ideally, when we have enough, we sprinkle them about 1/2" deep over the beds. Note: Though coffee-grounds are neither a local or sustainable resource, currently the are free and by using them, we keep them out of the waste-stream.
Spreading wood-ashes: After coffee we add a very light sprinkling of wood-ashes (they are very concentrated and can 'burn' sensitive micro-organisms and the worms' skin and change soil pH). We only use ash collected from natural wood that has no paint or other chemical treatments. Since we heat our house exclusively with wood, this is another 'free' resource.
Through the early winter months, we hand-dig these amendments into the soil. This provides a pleasant activity during inclement weather...
...and a nice time for socializing.

In early Spring, once we begin mowing the grass again, it makes a nutrient-dense mulch directly on the beds. Worms love fresh grass-clippings and will migrate to beds where it has been added.
The cycle starts again - Spreading materials in paths: Once we have harvested the worm-compost, it's time to start the cycle all over again!
Tomato-plants systematically being cut-up into the paths. The fallen tomatoes and weeds in the bed to the left of Llyn will also be scooped out/dug up and put into the path to feed the worms.
Layer, after layer, we build up the organic-matter in the paths.

This includes straw (if we have it) and grass-clippings.

Planting in beds and continuing to add organic-matter to the paths::
The process is an endless cycle, creating soil-fertility from local and veganic materials.
This method of growing, yields nutrient-dense, delicious food!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Harvest Totals - 2018, Fall Highlights and Gratitude

Adri and Cindy; summer bean picking time!
Hello friends - Well the hubbub of the holidays is retreating in the rear-view mirror and we're settling back into our garden routines as days get longer and we continue to prep for the first round of seed-planting in mid-February. This post is an end-of-the-year report on our donations to local Food Pantries, some highlights from the end of last year's garden season and some gratitude to our supporters - near, and far.

2018 - A great year for peppers!
Harvest totals: 2018 was the first year we had a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture - LINK). We had seven 'share-holders' who received boxes of produce for 25 weeks, from Mid-May to early November. We had to stop one week short of our 26-week goal due to a killing frost but our 'share-holders' were happy with their produce; in fact the most common 'criticism' was that we gave them too much food! We also fed ourselves, and our core share-givers; those who help us grow, and deliver the food (Cindy and Jim, Rook, Sabine, Cathy Rose, Eliza, Rod and Thorin) with weekly boxes and additional surplus for dehydrating and canning purposes.  

So, a lot of food came out of the gardens!

Fall Harvest (ahead of the frost) - Cayenne peppers and green tomatoes.
"Green" tomatoes, ripening on the porch.
Our donations went to three food-pantries: South Benton Food Pantry (Monroe, Oregon) - they receive the majority of our donations as they are located right next to the Sharing Gardens. Local Aid (Junction City) - a full-service community center (professional-clothes 'free-store', fuel-bill assistance and more) - Here's a link to a short video about them. And God's Storehouse (Harrisburg) a simple pantry run entirely through volunteers and donations.

SBFP: 1,798 pounds of produce and over 200 'starts'/seedlings.

Local Aid: 630 pounds,

God's Storehouse: 75 pounds

Total donations: 2,503 pounds

Pete Alford - delivery volunteer to Local Aid.
Our donation-numbers were lower this year than in the past, but still quite respectable. We hope to provide as much, or more next year.

Summer in the Gardens: Bean tipi on the right...
...Bean tipi in the Fall! We grew many gallons of Scarlet Runner beans (our favorite!) -  a LINK to our post about Growing Scarlet Runner beans.
Fall highlights: We had gorgeous weather for much of the Fall; temps in the 70's, partly cloudy (with big, puffy, white clouds) - for many weeks in a row. This made it very pleasant to be in the gardens (though we could have used a bit more rain...). In early November we had several cold nights in a row which knocked out the heat-loving plants (tomatoes, peppers - etc) and mostly brought the season to its end.

Hedgerow of sun-flowers; we grow these mainly for the birds to enjoy.
A great season for leaves! The drier weather meant that autumn-leaves stayed light and easy to rake and bag. We are grateful to the City of Monroe for posting an article (included in everyone's water-bill) requesting people bring us their leaves. We estimate that 25-30 bags of leaves were dropped off by the town's citizens; we picked up another 18-20 (from folks who couldn't bring their own) and we gave away over 50 leaf-bags we'd saved from previous donations, dried and rolled in groups of 6. That's a bunch of bags that didn't end up in the land-fill after only one use! We continue to recycle them for future seasons.

One of the trailer-loads of leaves the Crosby's donated.

One of the 25 trailer-loads of leaves donated by the Stones
Our 'neighbors', the Crosby's raked up four big trailer-loads of leaves and delivered them to the gardens. And Chris worked with our other neighbor - Victor Stone - who loaded 25 trailer-loads of leaves using his front-end loader which we brought to the gardens and distributed as a thick mulch in garden-beds and around our orchard trees.

Llyn, distributing leaves to feed the Gardens.
Our "chip's" come in! We managed to connect with the foreman of the tree-trimming service that's been servicing our town and surrounding areas and invited him to dump loads of wood-chips here. We use them to cover our driveway, to feed our mushroom bin and to mulch around our fruit-trees. We received four big loads (and could have had more delivered but that's all we could use).

Chris and John Kinsey distributing wood-chips.

Bird-feeder party! In early December we invited Cindy and Jim Kitchen to bring four of their grandchildren for a bird-feeder party. It was a highlight for Chris and me during the holiday season.The Kitchen's daughter Jamie, brought three of her kids and two, sweet Mexican girls who she knows from the "English as a second language" program she leads at her children's school. After making several dozen feeders (with pine-cones we gathered on our land, peanut-butter and millet, and sunflower seeds we grew last summer), and garden-cart rides, we headed inside for homemade chili and corn-cake.  We look forward to some more kid-oriented activities in this year to come.

Bird-feeder-making party! Pine cones, peanut-butter, millet and sunflower seeds. The birds love 'em!

Li Hung, an exchange-student from China giving the kids a cart-ride.
Gratitude: Tina and Swede continue to gather walnuts from their trees and bring them to us. Being vegetarians, we especially appreciate this local source of plant-based protein. One of our two walnut trees fell over in December and the other one is leaning dangerously over our house so we've decided to prune it way back. This will mean our walnut supply will be strongly diminished next year so Swede and Tina's gift will be even more appreciated than before!

John Kinsey continues to find many ways to support the program. At this time of year it's mainly by bringing us leaves he's raked from his neighbor's lawns and through a weekly pick-up of coffee-grounds - a free resource from coffee-shops that we use to increase soil-fertility LINK.

Cash donations: The Garden received donations from four households totaling $850. Thanks to Judy Peabody, John and Donna Dillard, Jim and Cindy Kitchen and Mike Weaver for your generosity.

Last year's indoor pea-patch in April. They grew another 3-feet and produced copiously before quitting in June.
Looking forward: On Saturday, January 5th (new moon), we'll be starting climbing peas in the greenhouse.

We already have over 250 onions planted (for greens, and some will form full bulbs).

The first major round of seed-planting begins on Valentine's Day (Chris' birthday) - broccoli, lettuce, celery, and more....

OSU Service-Learning students from 2018 showing a week's lettuce-harvest to donate to Local Aid.
OSU students are scheduled to come assist us with whatever needs doing on Feb. 16th through their 'service-learning' program (4-6 students for four hours); we have been hosting groups of students several times a year since 2012!

We hope this post finds you thriving and finding ways to help make this world a better place.
As Mother Teresa once said,  
 “If you can’t feed a hundred . . . . feed one.”  Mother Teresa
Caleb, reaching for Whole Grain No-Knead bread - recipe (with home-grown blue-corn meal we grew ourselves - LINK, and other flours).