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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Soil Building 101

I have honestly never had a book spur me to so much action.  For years I’ve been saying I gotta do something about my soil fertility, I gotta do something about my soil fertility, but I haven’t been able to get my arms around how to do it on the scale or speed I need to.  My soil is essentially dead.  Not completely dead, but pretty darn sick. But now I have a start and it's all because of this book and a perfect storm of information coming to the fore at roughly the same time.  I have to admit here that it's probably because I was so frustrated that I asked for Help.  And I got it. It all pretty much happened within ten days or so.

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health is a great read that deals with microbes: fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and their critical part in how life on the planet works. Starting with a backyard full of dead soil in Seattle, David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé are drawn into the world of microbes when they notice that the mulch they’ve been applying to their yard keeps disappearing and yet the almost gray dirt is being replaced by dark, friable soil that is making their yard the envy of the neighborhood. When Anne has a bout with cancer, they are drawn into the fascinating world of the microbiome that is the human body*.  We are nothing but a vessel for holding billions upon billions of microbiota without which we can’t digest food or fend off pathogens. Betcha didn’t know that.

In the book I learned that soil microbes act as middlemen between the soil and plant roots.  When they tell you ‘feed the soil’, what they really mean is ‘feed the microbes’.  Plants can’t take up soil minerals on their own, so their roots exude compounds that attract soil microbes. The soil microbes are attracted to the exudates and hang out very, very close to the roots (so close they create what is called the rhizosphere) and sip on exudates and eat soil minerals and dead things. Then they poop and the roots absorb what’s in their poop.  The plants can’t live without the microbes because they can’t digest what’s in the soil without them.  Plants also count on soil microbes to help them ward off disease and even in some instances, insect attacks. They talk to each other via chemical pathways.

I also learned that fertilizing your soil with chemical fertilizers will kill the soil over time, because it removes the dependence on soil microbes, and in some cases, just plain poisons the microbes. Plants manage by the sheer amount of minerals and substances that get dumped into the soil, but the upshot is that as the microbes die off, the plants require more and more fertilizer until the point that the soil is dead.  And once the soil is really dead, nothing will grow in it. I’m certain that’s what happened to our soil because when we moved in here there were a half dozen or so sacks of the same kind of fertilizer stacked up in the garage.  The previous owner, Mr. Hunt, came late to the organic growing party, but that was well after he’d killed his soil.  I didn’t know that I haven’t been doing the soil any more favors by adding organic rock phosphate and cotton meal and other types of organic fertilizers.  The only way to improve soil is to add organic matter. It truly is. 

However, it’s not the only thing you can do if you can’t wait for nature to take her sweet time turning it into good soil. David and Anne mentioned in their book that in addition to mulch, Anne also applied ‘soil soup’.  I emailed her to find out what she used for mulch and asked if could she give me the recipe for soil soup (this was after I looked all over the internet to see if it was posted anywhere- on their website, in any talks or seminars they’d given, but I couldn’t find anything).  The mulch is a combination of wood chips and leaves, and she agreed that it was kind of like composting in situ, minus the kitchen scraps.  The soil soup is a combination of vermicompost, water, molasses and kelp powder and in looking for an exact recipe and method, I’ve since discovered why this breaks down the mulch so quickly, but we’ll get to that later.

The immediate problem for me was how to get my hands on the wood chips.  Years ago I read in the Mother Earth News that they had discovered that wood made the best soil after reviewing the results of the test they ran specifically to see what makes the best soil.  And after watching the film Back To Eden, I knew that to get this soil, you needed wood chips on a large scale. Paul Gautschi gets his from arborists.  Somewhere along the line I learned that what you really want are ramial wood chips. Ramial wood chips come from the branches of deciduous trees that are no larger than two and a half inches in diameter (less than seven centimeters).  The reason for this kind of specificity is twofold. One is that you want the branches to be of a certain size to ensure that the wood itself is still full of soluble lignins; this means that they will break down quickly.  The second is that you only want wood from deciduous trees because they encourage white rot.  Evergreens, particularly conifers, encourage brown rot.  White rot is good because it encourages growth; brown rot is bad because it discourages growth.  So when I asked about wood chips from the arborists who were taking down the neighbor’s deodar cedar, they told me about is a terrific internet service that matches arborists with folks who need wood chips.  Specifically free wood chips. You can’t specify what species of wood you want your chips to be from, but you can specify what wood species you are not willing to take.  They’re quick to caution you that because these chips are coming straight from a job, there will be needles or leaves or both mixed in, depending on what you’ve specified.  A mix of wood chips and leaves is ideal.  You can also tell them if you’re willing to take some logs off their hands, which I will probably be doing this coming fall sometime when I’m ready to spread conifer chips over my pathways (remember: conifers encourage brown rot which discourages growth- perfect for a pathway).  To increase your chances of getting a drop, you can agree to let them charge you twenty dollars or more; this takes away the fee that the arborists would have had to pay to dump their chips elsewhere.  I decided to opt for this because I was being picky about the kind of chips I wanted.  Two really important things you should know about is that you will in all likelihood NOT get a notification when they are coming; they will come when it’s convenient and leave the chips where you specified in your instructions.  In our case, we were lucky enough to follow the guy into our neighborhood after coming back from grocery shopping and I knew right away those were my chips!  We just had to beat him in or at least be right behind him because my instructions were to dump them in the driveway.  I had Steve stop the car so that I go get out and run up to the driver’s window so I could ask if he could wait a minute while my husband put the car away.  I don’t know if I was more excited to get the car in the garage before he’d dumped the load or if I was just excited because I was getting a load!  

The other important thing you should know is that once you get a drop, you fall off their system, so if you need more, you have to sign back on, which is a really good feature. No more surprises.  But for free or nearly free wood chips, this service can’t be beat. As far as I’m concerned, my wood chip sourcing problem is solved.

The load they dropped was from a giant ash tree a few blocks over, which was perfect. There are probably some chips in there from branches larger than an inch and a half, but I’m not really concerned about it because the soil soup I am making will help them break down quickly.  

Soil soup is made by growing the number of microbes in a quart of vermicompost in five gallons of aerated water, with the addition of an ounce of organic, unsulphured, blackstrap molasses and an ounce of kelp meal or fish emulsion.  Here is a picture of the batch I started yesterday.  Before starting, I drilled a one-inch hole near the bottom of the bucket and installed a bottling spigot, which I also got from Amazon. If you're going to do this, do yourself a favor and drill the hole using a one-inch hole saw- it does a much better and neater job of it than a one inch spade bit.  Trust me on this.  Then I ran the air through the water for a few hours to blow off the chlorine in the water. It also makes sure there is plenty of air in the water before you start. I also lined the bucket with a five gallon paint strainer, which will keep the large pieces of vermicompost from clogging the spigot.

Aeration is important for making soil soup because it keeps the microbes from using up all the oxygen in the water and dying off, which would defeat the purpose. You want to add live microbes to the soil and wood chips.  I purchased an inexpensive aquarium kit off Amazon which contained the air pump, tubing, and two aeration stones. The addition of molasses to the mixture encourages the growth of soil bacteria and the addition of the protein-based kelp powder or fish emulsion encourages the growth of soil fungi. It’s easy to be tempted to focus on the fungi because they do the heavy lifting in wood deconstruction but you need the bacteria as well because they have a job to do, too.  Leave the concoction to aerate and grow for three days and then water it into your wood chips and soil.  I didn’t see anywhere how often to do this but I hope to be able to get through the whole yard in a three week period and then start over and keep doing that until the rainy season sets in. So maybe two or three times over.  

If I’m good and stay on top of this, I expect that with just the wood chips and soil soup alone it will take a good four or five years to build the soil, but I’m not expecting that this method will be the only thing I do.  Since the wood chips and leaves will be composted in situ, I’m considering making a worm composter and keeping it under the kitchen sink.  I’ve never been crazy about having to take the compost out to the compost pile in the winter time and this would be a good way to avoid that. I would also be growing my own source of vermicompost which is probably the best reason for doing it.  The other soil input that I’m counting on is rabbit poop, which I’ll probably compost along with the muckings from the chickens.  However, rabbit poop is one chicken I’m not going to count until it’s hatched. The nearly free wood chips and soil soup will be the major constituent of my soil building. 

Now that I have it underway I am quite frankly, relieved.

*Did you know that there are more microbial cells in your body than there are cells that actually make up your body? And that the human gut actually talks to the brain via the vagus nerve? And that the microbiota in your gut are more responsible for your mood and personality than your brain is?  If you want to see something really fascinating, watch The Gut on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Homesteading Update August 2, 2017

*click on the pictures- they're much more clear that way!

I wanted to tell you that I have my winter garden started on time for once, and I do, but I think I’ll probably lose my brassicas. Maybe some others. It’s hot here, really hot. Like 100F hot. Tomorrow is forecast for 110F, and the next nine days will be in the high nineties.  I have a feeling I may have to start over.

So- since it will probably be too hot to start my August stuff like lettuce, broccoli raab, kale, etc., I’ll have to get clever about it.  The problem with growing for winter is that you have to have it pretty much mature by the early part of autumn so that when the sun finally wanes off and your vegetables quit growing, everything is ready for harvest. I am frankly not really sure what I’m going to do but I’ll let you know if I come up with something. It may be just sowing seed, keeping them watered and covered, and crossing my fingers.

In the meantime, I’ve been really busy, which is why I haven’t written in awhile.

First, I finished the dining nook!  You know what that means?  I get to start rabbits! The deal was that I couldn’t start another project until I finished the dining nook which took me, I’m ashamed to say, I mean, really ashamed, six years. But it’s finally done.

For some reason, getting that done made me want to finish another project I’d started last year.  It was ostensibly to have something to practice on with my drill press, but once the chuck fell out of it with a spinning hole saw in it that bounced on the drill press table and then went skipping across my forearm, I kind of lost interest in using my drill press. The injury wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been but I'm a little leery about that drill press. I remember thinking 'I don't know about this' when the instructions said to bang it in there, and a cabinet maker friend assures me that's how they all get put in, but it seems to me that there should be a set screw somewhere. I still haven’t put the chuck back in. 

In any case, I finished the new hat and coat rack with my cordless drill, so now we have enough room for our coats and our guests’ coats. Also a place to put hats and gloves. By the way, these photos look terrible because I've given up on our camera and the phone takes good enough pictures in every other use, but Blogger doesn't like them for some reason. Although this one was a little on the grainy side. It's usually fairly dark where this rack is.

Then because I had this making stuff wild hair up my backside, I made myself a floor mount embroidery frame. It’s largish so that I can embroider cushion covers and embellish largish things. Incidentally, part of the reason I made this was because I saw a picture of one and realized that I had all the material lying around in the garage. I only had to buy the hardware.

Right on the heels of the embroidery frame, I made us a patio table because we didn’t have one and we had house guests coming. This was back when the weather was decent and we wanted to hang out outside. We had been using a folding card table but that got old because there wasn’t enough room. I mean there wasn't enough room for Steve's knees!  The new table has plenty of room; I can comfortably get six people around it (eight in a pinch) and have room for serving dishes and platters. It’s made of cedar and should weather to a nice gray. We've used it a lot, although mainly for breakfast. You know. Breakfast on the veranda. It's kind of nice when you have a decent garden to look at while you're dining.

After awhile I got tired of crawling over and around stuff in the garage, so I cleaned and reorganized it, which took Three. Whole. Days. It's a whole lot better- there's actually enough room for us both to climb into the car at the same time. It used to be that Steve would have to pull the car out of the garage and let me get in.  I'm not going to show you that because, even though it looks great to me, it would not to you. I'm not like my father-in-law who besides having cupboards to stuff everything into, also mops his garage floor. I asked him how he got it so clean and he said 'With a mop and bucket!' like I was the crazy one. I'm sorry if you mop your garage floor too, but that's just nuts.

But back to projects: next was the garden. About two or three years ago, I started beds for cold frames for winter.  Well I finally got around to finishing them.  Since I needed to be able to shade the seedlings against the hot sun, I made frames for the reed fences that we used to have to put over the pergola.  The reed fences work really well to shade the seedlings. I may cut them down because they’re a little awkward, but they work really, really well for their new purpose. 

While I was building cold frame boxes, I boxed in the boysenberries as well.  Since this picture was taken (I really gotta go back to using the camera), Steve cut the part of the neighbor's crabtree that fell over the fence into our yard and ran it through the chipper.  All those lovely crabapple wood chips are now tidying up the box. They are sitting on soil which is sitting on cardboard, and even though I torched everything on the ground in there, a dandelion is still making its way up through it all.

This seems to be the best way to train indeterminate tomatoes.  I really like this method better than anything else I’ve tried.  The stands and crosspieces are all three-quarter inch EMT. I just ran a line from the ground up over the end, along the crosspiece and down the other side, and tied both ends to one foot long pieces of rebar that were hammered in on the diagonal.  That’s also what I tied off every tomato line to as well.  I love using rebar in the garden. I have one, two, and three foot lengths of it and they get used over and over and over again. When I’m not using them, they get stored in a couple of five gallon buckets on the porch. By the way, the tomatoes are two times as big now as they are in that picture. One month sure makes a difference on everything.

I recently saw a couple of videos of different professional cucumber growing operations, and that’s how they grow cucumbers as well. Cucumbers have suckers just like tomatoes, and you can keep the plant tidy by pinching them out and growing it up a line.  My plan for next year is to build a cage with one or one-and-a-half inch EMT and run the three-quarter inch EMT across, and then I’ll have a good place for tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons.  Beans too, come to think of it.

Speaking of melons, I am having much better luck this year with them. I remembered reading somewhere that pumpkins really like to grow in compost piles, and I figured melons are kind of like pumpkins so I moved the compost which was almost done anyway, into one of the beds and transplanted my melon starts into it.  

I have a couple melons on the Prescott Fond Blanc, but not too many of the Valencia Winter Melons, and I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to ripen them or not.  I haven’t given up on growing melons though.  Next year I’ll look for an early honeydew.  Steve and I discovered on our camping trip that we really like honeydew melon. This one here is called Prescott Fond Blanc; I got the seed from Baker Heirloom.

I’m actually still working on rabbits, though!  Before I can get the rabbit house going, the fence desperately needed mending.  Steve and I knocked out three panels last weekend, and I think we’ll suck it up and get the last four done next weekend. We’ll just have to stay hydrated and take breaks.  I was going to use the old fence boards to make a compost bin but they are way too rotten to bother, so I’ll have to research how to get rid of them in my area. I guess it’s a good thing I have a truck!

I have a couple of other irons in the fire, but they should be in a post of their own because they fall under one of my favorite subjects: soil fertility. I have a whole load of information to share on that one.

In the meantime though, I'm going to try to stay cool. And I'm going to pray for my seedlings!