Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 2: Pathogen Prevention

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Pathogen…. That just sounds like a creepy, scary word. And when you are talking about pathogens in your soil, it really can be.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

Irish Potato Famine

You’ve all heard of the Irish Potato Famine, right? A million Irish people died and another million emigrated because the Irish potato crops were decimated by a pathogen called Phytophthora infestans.

When it happened, Irish farmers were growing potatoes about like the rest of us grow weeds. They were so good at it, that the diets of the Irish poor revolved around that one calorie crop. Little did they know that a vicious pathogen was lurking in their soil, biding its time until it had the numbers to totally decimate the Irish food supply.

OK, in reality, the pathogen itself is not quite that menacing. The real reason this was such a big deal was because more diverse food options were not available for a large percentage of the Irish population. (The wealthy had diverse diets; the poor relied on potatoes.)

Additionally, because potatoes were planted prolifically, the pathogen spread quickly through the sharing of seed potatoes (like the way a cold spreads through an office). Once in the soil, it stayed dormant until significant rains sent it into reproductive overdrive and allowed it to infect and thrive in sopping wet potato plants. Heavy rain is to fungal pathogens what dry wind is to an open fire.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

How Pathogens Spread

If you grow tomatoes, you are probably familiar with two well-known pathogens commonly called blight and wilt. These pathogens are similar to the Irish potato plant killer. They spread slowly in the soil—usually transmitted by transplants, compost, soil mixes, or even your shoes.

In relatively dry conditions, these pathogens may be present in the soil, but have no impact on your plant. Then one day, you get 2 inches of rain, your soil compacts and doesn’t dry out for days, and leaves turn yellow and drop off. Then, on the next sunny day, your tomatoes get ugly sun scald spots and rot before you can eat them.

Here’s the thing: Pathogens alone present no risks. Many of them are plant specific, which means that unless they come into contact with a suitable host plant, they are harmless. Even when you have the pathogen and the plant in the same place, this will not necessarily result in plant damage.

It’s only when you get a trifecta of conditions that include the right plant, the right pathogen, and environmental conditions suitable for incubation and infestation that problems happen. Here’s a simple mathematical expression for how that works:

Pathogen + Susceptible Plant Host + Optimal Environmental Conditions = Disaster

Remove one of these pieces from the equation, and you can avert disaster. Since you often don’t know the pathogen is present in your soil and you can’t control things like the weather, the most logical way to avert disaster is to take the host plant out of the equation.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

Rotate Plants by Family to Reduce Risk

This is where the idea of only planting one family of plants in the same plot once every four (or more) years comes into play. By rotating your plants, you limit the risk for having a trifecta. Also, depending on the life cycle of your pathogen, sometimes without a host plant, the pathogen will disappear over time.

Crop Rotation Slows the Spread

Additionally, with good plant-rotation plans, even if you do occasionally get small infestations of a pathogen, you can slow the spread by not offering host plants in close proximity year to year. Many pathogens are soil bound. They must make their way around on the bodies of soilborne critters, through transplants, on your garden tools, by catching a ride with an airborne insect, etc.

If they can move from host plant to host plant year after year, they can build up more quickly. With no nearby hosts, they remain dormant and pathogen populations remain in check.

Crop Rotation Gives you Time to Identify and Solve Pathogen Problems

Four-year rotations improve your odds by limiting a buildup of pathogens and spreading risk. Longer rotations are even better, since many pathogens can persist in the soil for 10 years or more. However, this can be more difficult to achieve in a small garden.

Luckily, if you do have plants that become infected with a pathogen, four-year crop rotation plans give you time to research and remedy your pathogen before you plant that family in that location again.

Start by identifying the pathogen. Aim to understand its life cycle and avoid planting the susceptible host plant again until you are sure the pathogen is gone.

Depending on your pathogen, there are different strategies you can follow to make your soil safe for planting again. For example, you can plant certain kinds of mustard and till them in. This practice is called biofumigation.

You can solarize your soil. This will kill all the biological life in your soil, too. You’ll need to then build back up your biological life with organic matter inputs.

With some pathogens that have long life spans, you may also need to consider more drastic measures. Replacing your soil, installing equipment to improve drainage, and developing alternate garden areas may be necessary in some instances.

Rotate by Families Prone to Similar Pathogen Problems

Because pathogens tend to affect entire plant families, rotating by family is the most common way to avoid pathogen problems. For example, tomatoes and potatoes might seem like very different plants to us. However, even if they have a preference for tomatoes over potatoes, opportunistic pathogens will take what they can get.

These are the family categories I use in my vegetable plant rotations:

  1. Nightshade Family: Tomato, Potato, Pepper, Eggplant
  2. Grass Family: Corn, Sorghum, Wheat
  3. Lettuce Family: Lettuce, Sunflowers, Dandelion, Chicory, Radicchio
  4. Beet Family: Beets, Spinach, Chard
  5. Cole Family: Cabbage, Mustard, Turnips, Arugula, Broccoli, Cauliflower
  6. Curcurbit Family: Squash, Cucumbers, Melons, Pumpkins
  7. Legume Family: Peas, Beans, Clover, Alfalfa
  8. Umbel Family: Carrots, Parsnips, Parsley, Fennel, Celery
  9. Allium Family: Onions, Garlic, Chives, Shallots
  10. Miscellaneous: Buckwheat, Okra, Sweet Potato

This is a lot to try to rotate in a small garden. Personally, I lump a few families together to create rotational pairings.

  • The nightshade, allium, cole, and sweet potato families tend to take up more space in my garden than the other families. They each get their own rotation.
  • I lump the grass, legume, and curcurbit families together in my rotations. I use that grouping because I tend to only need one row of space for those three plant families to one row of sweet potatoes based on how we eat. Sweet potatoes are a calorie crop that we need a lot of. Corn, cucumbers, and even beans (which are hard to grow enough of in useful amounts) are things we grow for fun to add variety to our diets.

Create Interplanting or Seasonal Plant Groupings

As long as you are consistent in your crop rotation methods, you can mix and match your families to get down to a four- or five-year planting rotation cycle.

If you use interplanting in your beds for soil protection, you may want to plan your family rotational groupings using this information. For example, if you grow carrots, radishes, and lettuce in the same bed at the same time, then one of your rotations would include the umbel, cole, and lettuce families.

Once you establish that grouping of families as a rotational pattern, then you can use that information to plan other rotations. You could grow early cabbage, followed by summer sunflowers, and then over-wintering parsnips. Using that same family grouping in different ways, you can achieve more food production while still having distinct rotations geared at preventing pathogens.

If you are following this series, you now have information to help you plan your crop rotation schedules to prevent pests and pathogens. However, there is one more really big reason why you may want to use crop rotation, even in a small garden. It’s for nutrient management. In the next post, we’ll cover that in more detail. Then you can take these three concepts and apply them to growing a more problem-free garden at home.

Read More: “Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 1: Pest Control”

In the meantime, start thinking about what you grow, and the kind of pathogens that are common to your area. Are there any you are particularly worried about? Talk to your local agricultural office and find out what risks may apply to your garden.

If you have any tricks or tips you’ve learned that might help with crop -rotation planning, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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The post Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 2: Pathogen Prevention appeared first on The Grow Network.

Reforesting Land With ORANGE PEELS?

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Compost everything, orange peel edition:

“Treuer initially set out to locate the large placard that marked the plot—and failed.

‘It’s a huge sign, bright yellow lettering. We should have been able to see it,’ Treuer says. After wandering around for half an hour with no luck, he consulted Janzen, who gave him more detailed instructions on how to find the plot.

When he returned a week later and confirmed he was in the right place, Treuer was floored. Compared to the adjacent barren former pastureland, the site of the food waste deposit was ‘like night and day.’

‘It was just hard to believe that the only difference between the two areas was a bunch of orange peels. They look like completely different ecosystems,’ he explains.

The area was so thick with vegetation he still could not find the sign.

Treuer and a team of researchers from Princeton University studied the site over the course of the following three years.

The results, published in the journal Restoration Ecology, highlight just how completely the discarded fruit parts assisted the area’s turnaround.

The ecologists measured various qualities of the site against an area of former pastureland immediately across the access road used to dump the orange peels two decades prior. Compared to the adjacent plot, which was dominated by a single species of tree, the site of the orange peel deposit featured two dozen species of vegetation, most thriving.”

I’ve seen massive changes in an area after dropping lots of tree mulch. Struggling trees suddenly found their stride. Wildflowers and mushrooms appeared. Sweet potatoes exploded in productivity.

Read More: “Extreme Composting—How to Compost Everything”

Feed the soil, and the soil takes care of your plants. That’s why I argue in Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting that making lists of rules of things you “shouldn’t compost” and chucking good stuff like bones, wood, etc., is foolish.

Compost Everything

Nature breaks down organic material wonderfully. She’s a well-designed machine. Work with instead of against her and good things will come your way.

If something as simple as orange peels can restore lousy land, imagine what would happen if you added in a wide range of compostable material?

Big changes occur, even when you start small. Compost everything!

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Congratulations, March and April Certification Graduates!

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Congratulations to the following Community members on completing one or more of our Certifications in March and April!

As many of you know, one of the perks of membership in our Honors Lab is FREE access to several amazing certifications in our Honors Lab area—and lots more are in the works.

These Certifications dive deep. They’re essentially multi-lesson master classes, full of practical know-how so you can immediately start reaping benefits for yourself, your family, and your garden.

(And if you’re not an Honors Lab member yet, you can gain access to these Certifications + lots more perks of membership by joining today. Click here to learn more!)

 

Backyard Chickens for Egg Production Certification

NEW! Backyard Chickens for Egg Production 

In this awesome new certification, TGN blogger (and homesteader extraordinaire!) Tasha Greer covers everything from breed selection and coop design to flock health and egg storage — plus lots more….

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members on completing this Certification:

  • Cherlynn
  • Connie
  • daviddulock
  • Debbie Kennedy
  • Diane Massey
  • Donna Detweiler
  • Downing
  • griesjoe
  • Heather Duro
  • Jennifer Walton
  • Joanna Newcomer
  • Luetta
  • Mark Davis
  • MikeF
  • Nata Porter
  • Rebecca Potrafka
  • Scott Sexton
  • suzan.mckillop

 

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification 

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification

This 8-week course teaches the principles of bio-intensive gardening—one of the easiest, most sustainable ways to produce big, delicious fruits and vegetables!

It covers everything from starting and transplanting seedlings to the basics of garden beds and soil, and from making compost to garden maintenance. There’s even a section on harvesting and processing grains!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members for completing the Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification in March and April!

  • bonhil777
  • Cherlynn
  • elizsiracusa
  • griesjoe
  • Heather Duro
  • Joanna Newcomer
  • Kathryn Magoon
  • Lauren Premo
  • Linda Clardy
  • Mary Ellen Rowe
  • MikeF
  • Richelle John
  • Sharon Companion
  • Shelli Haun
  • susanna.schuch
  • suzan.mckillop

 

Home Medicine 101 Certification

Home Medicine 101 Certification

The Home Medicine 101 Certification is a perennial favorite in the Honors Lab!

This eight-week class teaches you how to remedy:

  • Burns, stings, and rashes,
  • Wounds and lacerations,
  • Coughs and colds,
  • Fevers,
  • Indigestion,
  • Anxiety and insomnia,
  • Muscle pain, and
  • Topical infections …

… with readily available plants you may already have growing in your backyard!

Congratulations to the following Community members for completing Home Medicine 101:

  • alyssabpanico
  • AmyMatter
  • andreasexton
  • Anna-Marie
  • barb.stinson
  • bayetdelatour
  • bonhil777
  • Brenda Nicholson
  • cathyneumans
  • CeceliaStubbs
  • Cherlynn
  • ChristieWeixel
  • Chuck Belshe
  • CindaDunham
  • crowe.martin
  • DavidColley
  • Denise Poundstone
  • Diane Massey
  • Dianne
  • Donna Raygoza
  • elizsiracusa
  • equussue
  • ewbroach
  • fostermom30
  • Gee
  • Greg
  • griesjoe
  • handhinternatl
  • Jamie Carels
  • jasabelle6
  • Joanna Newcomer
  • KarinHolzscheiter
  • Katrina Rhoades
  • Kevin White
  • KrisLaubach
  • Lann
  • Lisa Petrillo
  • M
  • Marilyn Nepper
  • Mary Anne Chase
  • Mary Linda Bittle
  • michaelbuzel
  • nancybekaert
  • nicolette_b_2000
  • NINITAKELLER
  • NoeleneChadwick
  • ntcherneva
  • philipcabrams
  • rikkamojica
  • rleneraigoza
  • Shane Kraus
  • Sieglinde
  • smith4536
  • suzan.mckillop
  • tjm5
  • Tracy

 

Instant Master Gardener Certification

 

Instant Master Gardener Certification

In just 8 lessons, The Grow Network’s Instant Master Gardener Certification reveals gardening secrets, tips, and tricks that most people spend years discovering.

Lessons include:

  1. “The Secret to a Green Thumb”
  2. “How Much Land Do You Need?”
  3. “The Power of Herbs”
  4. “The Easiest Way to Prepare a Garden Bed”
  5. “Three Facts About Seeds Every Master Gardener Knows”
  6. “Transplanting Baby Plants”
  7. “The Four HUGE Advantages of Backyard Food Production”
  8. “A Homemade Fertilizer So Powerful, You Could Create a Business Out of It”

Congrats to the following Honors Lab members for completing this powerful certification in March and April:

  • 4cheers4u
  • Angel Nance
  • Barbara Maneja
  • Bill Burger
  • bonhil777
  • Bonnie Guffey
  • cathyneumans
  • CeceliaStubbs
  • Cherlynn
  • Constantine Spialek
  • Dale M Sieting
  • Denise Poundstone
  • dianamlott
  • Donna
  • Downing
  • Edge
  • EllenHomeister
  • griesjoe
  • Heather Duro
  • HeidiRockwell
  • Janet MacLennan
  • janicepizzonia
  • Joanna Newcomer
  • Kali Mason
  • Kathryn Magoon
  • Lauren Doyle Kerins
  • MarieCrum
  • Marilyn Nepper
  • Mary Ellen Rowe
  • MikeF
  • Nadia Cassar
  • preacher
  • Rebecca Potrafka
  • Selene Staehle
  • Sharon Companion
  • Shelli Haun
  • susanna.schuch
  • suzan.mckillop

 

Saving Quality Seeds Certification

Saving Quality Seeds

Learn how to save seeds that will ensure an abundant harvest in years to come with the in-depth information in TGN’s Saving Quality Seeds Certification.

This 7-lesson Certification teaches which plants are easiest to save seeds from, how to plan your garden with seed-saving in mind, how to do a garden soil inventory, the basics of dry and wet harvesting, the best way to store seed, how to determine seed quality—and more!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members on completing this Certification:

  • Carol Williams
  • Cherlynn
  • griesjoe
  • Heather Duro
  • Joanna Newcomer
  • Mark Davis
  • MikeF
  • Sharon Companion
  • Shelli Haun

 

 

We’ve also got several more certifications in the works, including “Making Home Medicine,” “Backyard Meat Rabbits,” “Bird-watching,” and “Beekeeping.” We’re working with some fantastic experts on these, so you’ll definitely want to check them out in the Honors Lab once they’re ready. Exciting stuff! 🙂

 

The post Congratulations, March and April Certification Graduates! appeared first on The Grow Network.

Cooked Food in the Compost Is Bad?

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D wasn’t happy with the free composting guide I give away to newsletter subscribers:

“You say in your compost guide to use cooked food!!! Isn’t that just asking for rats and maggots to come and invade, giving them a invitation?”

You can’t win them all.

Yet why would you not use cooked food in your compost? Do you think rats are particularly attracted to cooked vs. non-cooked food? No, rats love just about anything you throw their way, as do maggots.

Soldier fly larvae are maggots, and they are great composters!

And rats? Come on. Bury things deeply, as I do in my “melon pits:”

Other gardeners are picking up the melon pit idea as well:

Melon pits are an easy way to add cooked food to your compost if you’re really afraid of rats and other vermin.

Or you can just compost in a closed bin.

I mean, really … why throw potential soil fertility away? Compost everything!

Nature was designed to break down organic material, and she’s really good at it. Cooked food isn’t a problem; meat isn’t a problem; paper isn’t a problem! You can keep problems at bay by burying the really nasty stuff or by building bins that are animal-proof (provided you don’t have bears or Bigfoot in your neighborhood).

Quit worrying and compost on.

 

The post Cooked Food in the Compost Is Bad? appeared first on The Grow Network.

5 Keys to Food Security in Extreme Weather, for Home Gardeners

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Back in August 2015, I wrote a post about the findings of a joint task force of experts from the U.K. and U.S. The group had released recommendations for Extreme Weather and Resilience of the Global Food System. You can read the original post on food security here: 

Read More: “Extreme Weather and Food Resilience for Home Growers”

Quite frankly, that report was pretty scary. It detailed all sorts of reasons why our global food supply was in serious jeopardy. When that report was released in 2015, I had noted how relevant it was in light of a number of catastrophic weather events going on at the time, wreaking havoc on crops and raising food prices in some areas.

Now, just a couple of years later, the situation has become even worse. Hurricanes, mudslides, drought-related fires, disrupted weather patterns, wars, and more have caused crazy fluctuations in food supplies around the world.

In March 2017, the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) released a Global Report on Food Crises 2017.1)http://www.fao.org/3/a-br323e.pdf In that report, they indicated that the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity had increased by 35% since the release of the 2015 report.

Quite a bit of that lack of food security was related to conflict. However, catastrophic weather events like droughts had also driven up the costs of staple foods, making them unaffordable for large groups of people.

If you think this can only happen in poor, war-torn countries, then consider this. In the U.S. in 2017, there were at least 16 weather events that cost over a billion dollars each and resulted in losses of crops, livestock, and other resources, as well as of homes, businesses, personal property, and lives.2)https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/2017 In 2016, there were 15 of these weather catastrophes; in 2015, there were 9; in 2014, there were 8; and in 2013, there were 9.

It might be too early to say that 15-16 catastrophic, billion-dollar weather events is the new normal for the U.S. However, new data modeling shows that there are real risks that both the U.S. and China might simultaneously experience catastrophic crop losses that could drive up prices and send more countries into food famine in the coming decades.3)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/15/climate-change-food-famine-study

In 2017, due to a weakened dollar, food prices in the U.S. increased by 8.2%.4)https://www.thebalance.com/why-are-food-prices-rising-causes-of-food-price-inflation-3306099 That trend hopefully won’t continue in 2018, but between weather and world volatility, isn’t it better to bank on building your own food security independent of global markets and events?

We think so, too! So, we want to give you some ideas to help you build your own food security at home.

Food Security Recommendation #1: Understand Your Risks

Building on the ideas from our earlier post on “Extreme Weather and Food Resilience for Home Growers,” it’s really important to know the risks for your area and plan your gardening practices to be resilient even when disaster hits.

Many  governments and global non-governmental organizations have made predictive models for the likely regional effects of climate change available. You can use these models to identify trends in your area. Here are a few example models available:

Even if you don’t live in one of these areas, a quick Internet search for “climate change impacts” for your area should give good results. This search may link to articles about impacts as well as to modeling tools. Focus on search hits from government or academic websites for more comprehensive, peer-reviewed climate change data.

Food Security Recommendation #2: Consider Using Permaculture-Based Landscape Design

There have been so many weather-related disasters recently that it is hard to know what to prepare for anymore. In California, extreme dry weather and winds made for a devastating fire season. Then, the loss of vegetation from the fire season led to severe mudslides during torrential rains. Parts of Australia have also been suffering similar catastrophic cycles of drought and flooding.

In Western North Carolina where I live—a locale that we chose specifically because it is expected to be less impacted by climate change (e.g., sea levels rising, coastal hurricanes, etc.)—we’ve had extended dry periods followed by heavy rains that led to lots of vegetation losses in our area.

Drought-flood cycles are extremely damaging to plant life. In dry periods, plant roots dehydrate and shrivel. Soil also shrinks from water loss. Then when heavy rains come, the soil and roots no longer have the water-holding capacity they once did. Rather than the rain being absorbed, it sits on top of dry, compacted soils in flat areas, causing flooding. Or it moves downhill, taking topsoil and vegetation with it as it goes, causing mudslides and flash flooding in other areas.

When you use permaculture design in planning your foodscapes, you take into account these kinds of cycles of drought and heavy rain that would otherwise be damaging to vegetation. In fact, you make them work for you. Simple solutions like catching and storing water high on your land can help you better weather the cycles of drought and flood.

By applying permaculture principles, you can help safeguard your food security by making your landscape more resilient to weather extremes and diversifying your food supply to ensure you get good yields regardless of weather.

To get an idea of how permaculture works, check out this tour of Zaytuna Farm given by Geoff Lawton.

Also, if you want a short but powerful introduction to what permaculture can do in extreme landscapes, check out these titles by Sepp Holzer:

Food Security Recommendation #3: Manage Your Microclimates

Every property has microclimates. For example, in North America, it will almost always be a bit warmer along the edges of a south-sloping blacktop driveway. This is because the path of the sun will cast more sun on southern-facing slopes. They are literally like sun scoops, catching its rays.

food security - blacktop asphalt

“Closeup of pavement with grass” by User:Angel caboodle is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Additionally, dark colors absorb more heat than light colors. If you painted that same driveway white, it would still be warmer due to its southern slope. However, the white paint would reflect light and heat away from the driveway and would keep that same area cooler than with a blacktop driveway.

The physical mass of blacktop asphalt material also acts as a heat sink. It draws in heat during the day and releases  it back into surrounding areas as air temperatures cool at night. The same driveway made with light-colored concrete might not absorb quite as much heat as an asphalt driveway due to its color. However, it would still act as a heat sink by virtue of its mass.

The shade of a large oak tree creates a cooler area than the dappled shade of a pruned fruit tree. Large bodies of water will help regulate extreme temperatures. A wide, stone knee wall around a raised bed will insulate the soil inside better than thin wood boards because of its mass. Boulders in your landscape are also heat sinks. Even things like black trash cans can impact temperatures directly around their vicinity.

Gaining a basic understanding of how colors attract light waves, learning how different kinds of mass (rocks, soil, trees, etc.) store heat and divert wind, and knowing the path of the sun at different times of the year in your area can help you use microclimates to moderate the effects of extreme cold and heat. Using your slopes, like north-facing slopes to keep things cooler and south-facing slopes to heat things up, can also help. Working with shade patterns to minimize or maximize sun exposure can help moderate hot and cold temperature extremes.

For example, I live in USDA planting Zone 7a. With the extreme cold weather we’ve had this year, our conditions were closer to Zone 5.  Some of my plants—like rosemary, which is hardy to zone 7—were killed by the cold. After our last risk of frost passes, I plan to replant rosemary bushes in front of our south-facing house and mulch them with dark stones. In that location, even if we have Zone 5 conditions again, my rosemary should make it just because the heat mass from our house and the stones, the southward orientation, and the wind protection give it the right microclimate.

Cold frames, greenhouses, and underground areas (e.g., walipinis) are also good ways to create microclimates on your property to ensure longer and more secure food production in extreme conditions. Check out this post from Marjory to learn about building your own underground greenhouse.

Read More: “Underground Walipini Pit Greenhouse Construction”

Food Security Recommendation #4: Go Big on Organic Matter in Your Soil

If I pour a bucket of water over some of the heavy clay soil in my landscape, water runs off on slopes. In flat or cratered areas, it sits on top, eventually making a big muddy mess that becomes algae-covered if we don’t have enough wind or sun to dry it out.

If I pour a bucket of water over the same approximate amount of area in one of my vegetable garden beds, loaded with compost, the bucket of water soaks in. Even on sloped beds, the water sinks and stays put rather than running off.

Soils that are high in organic matter are more porous and spacious than compacted soils.

If you try the same experiment with sand, the water will also soak in as it did in my garden bed. Unfortunately, it won’t stay there. Come back a few hours later and that water will be gone, which means it is not stored in the root zone for later use by plants.

Soils that are high in organic matter also preserve moisture better than sandy soils.

In order to hold water in your soil during droughts and catch it during heavy rains, you need a lot of organic matter in your soil. Here are a few easy ways you can up your organic matter quotient at home.

  1. Add compost.
  2. Mulch with things like wood chips, straw, old hay, grass clippings, and mulched leaves.
  3. Plant, then chop and drop cover crops like grain grasses, clover, mustard, or chicory.
  4. Use no-till or minimal till practices and leave decaying roots and plant matter in the soil.

Check out these TGN posts to learn more about these methods.

“No Till Gardening: Homesteading Basics (VIDEO)”

“Build Your Compost Pile Right On Your Garden Beds!”

“From Weeds to WOW: The Weed Island”

“No Bare Soil! Vegetable Garden Cover Crops”

Adding organic matter not only slows the flow of water in your landscape and sinks it deeper into plant roots, but it actually sinks carbon dioxide, too.

Yes! Building soil that is higher in organic matter can actually help solve our CO2 problem. And solving our CO2 problem will moderate the disastrous effects of climate change and can mitigate future weather extremes. (No, this one answer won’t solve all our problems—but if lots of us do it, it will help!)

Food Security Recommendation #5: Remember ABC—Always Be Cover-cropping

Plant roots are like plumbing for your soil. They create little channels that help divert water down into the earth so it can be accessed by the plant and other biological soil inhabitants. By growing something in your soil at all times, you keep those pathways open for water to filter down into the soil.

For annual growing areas, planting cover crops in off seasons is critical. However, even for the rest of your landscape, having some sort of cover crop is necessary for extreme weather resilience.

Many of us grow lawns as our primary perennial cover crop. Traditional lawns, though, are shallow-rooted and do not contribute much to soil health. Growing grasses with deeper root systems like perennial rye and other prairie- or meadow-type grasses can be even more beautiful and give you deep roots to help sink water further into your soil.

Using vegetative perennials (i.e., that die back in the winter) with expansive root systems is also a great way to prevent soil erosion and build biomass in your landscape. Yarrow, Russian comfrey, curly dock, burdock, vetches, and even invasives like mints are useful for covering bare soil in a hurry. Since these plants lose their leaves each year and can be heavily pruned in the growing season, they make great green manure or mulch plants, too. Tap-rooted trees like black locust and paw paw also drill water and air down deep into your soil.

In addition, having a continuous cover of plants (or leaves from those plants) keeps your soil cooler on hot days and warmer on cool days. This protects all the biological life in your soil like bacteria, fungi, worms, and more so that they can work year-round. Their continued hard work means that your soil will get better year after year so that your plants will have more disease resistance and resilience during bad weather streaks.

Bare soil  = No biological life = More pests, more diseases, and greater weather sensitivity for your plants

Covered soil = Year-round biological workers = Healthier plants better adapted to your weather extremes

If you are willing to do the research and the work, there are plenty of things you can do to mitigate your risks from a changing climate and more volatile weather patterns. These ideas are barely the tip of the iceberg (which is lucky for us since glaciers are now melting at an alarming rate)!

What about you? What other ways are you safeguarding your food security against extreme weather patterns?

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The Grow Network is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate program designed to provide a means for our team to earn fees for recommending our favorite products! We may earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you, should you purchase an item after clicking one of our links. Thanks for supporting TGN!

 

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.fao.org/3/a-br323e.pdf
2. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/2017
3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/15/climate-change-food-famine-study
4. https://www.thebalance.com/why-are-food-prices-rising-causes-of-food-price-inflation-3306099

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Compost Fish Right in the Garden

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Yes, you can compost fish!

Last year, Jim wrote me to say:

“Since you are focusing on the wonderful world of rotting stuff, I wanted to relate a recent experience to you and your fans.

We garden in Alaska, and the whole composting thing is a big challenge for us. Because our average temperature is so low, it literally takes years to compost material.

Last year, we unfortunately had a chest freezer go bad, and it sat for a week before anyone discovered the problem. It was full of red salmon fillets and buffalo meat from what we had harvested previously.

After we cried about the 250 lbs. of rotting meat, we did what a lot of coastal Alaskans have done for 100s of years. We added the meat to the garden.

We garden in raised beds, so we dug out the dirt and placed the fillets (half of a red salmon each—about 2 pounds) in the bottom of the bed. The salmon was layered in the beds about 6 inches apart over the entire bottom of the beds and covered with 10 inches of dirt. We put approximately 20+ fillets (10 whole fish) in each bed.

We planted potatoes, peas, and broccoli in the beds and away we went. Luckily the bears left the beds alone, and the plants prospered.

We got a bumper crop of peas and broccoli, and the potatoes were the largest we have ever seen. The potatoes were the fancy purple kind and they grew 3-5 feet tall with 1-inch stalks.

They gave us a surprise by producing potato berries in large bunches. These berries are like large grapes. Unfortunately, they were everywhere, and the dog ate some and proceeded to vomit toxic berries for 2 days.

Lesson learned there!

So rotting, stinking fish flesh worked wonderfully, and the plants did not show any over-fertilizing problems as you would think.”

Oh heck yeah. When life gives you ruined meat … turn it into potatoes! Just don’t let the dog get into the solanine-rich potato fruits.

In a related idea, a reader e-mailed me this:

“My uncle told me a planting method for papayas in which you dig until you reach water (which, here, it only takes about 6 feet), refill the hole until there is no water showing, start a wood fire at the bottom of the hole, and fill the hole with organic matter.”

Another place for composting fish, perhaps?

I’ve not heard of that precise method, and it sounds like a lot of digging, but it’s not all that different from the melon pits I discuss in Compost Everything. That book also contains details on how to make fish emulsion in a barrel, just in case you don’t feel like digging.

Nature composts everything … why not do the same? Composting fish really isn’t that crazy. Remember the Pilgrims and the Indians? Why have we forgotten what our ancestors knew well?

Just go for it. Giant potatoes don’t lie.

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Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 1: Pest Control and Pathogen Prevention

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I am betting that you’re already familiar with the idea of crop rotation. You may have seen large swaths of farm fields covered with corn one year and soybeans the next. That is crop rotation as its most basic level.

Corn is a nitrogen hog and soybeans are a nitrogen fixer. By planting them back-to-back, you help regulate the nitrogen levels in soil, while producing two important food staples.

More sophisticated monoculture rotations include corn, soybeans, wheat, a different nitrogen fixer (other legumes). Some even include using the fields to grow grasses and graze horses or cattle for several years before planting again. This practice of incorporating animal grazing is still fairly common in my region.

Though we often associate crop rotation with industrial farming, the idea of rotating fields is an ancient practice. The early rendition is often referred to as “food, feed, fallow” and has been traced back to ancient Rome.

Essentially, in the first year farmers would grow crops for humans. The second year they would grow grains and graze animals. The third year, they’d let the field rest so the manure age. Then the cycle would start again.

Farmers – and more recently gardeners — have been experimenting with crop rotations to varying degrees since those ancient times. In this three part blog series, I am going to go over some of the main reasons why crop rotation is important and how you can do your crop experimentation at home.

Making your own crop rotation plan based on what you are growing and how you are growing it will get you much better results than following  pre-fab rotational plans made by others who may not have the same challenges as you. That’s because we all have different pest pressure, different pathogen risks, and different ways of amending and tending our gardens.

So, let’s dig into the details of how to create your own crop rotation plan at home.

Why Use Crop Rotation?

There are three primary reasons why people use crop rotation. These include pest prevention, pathogen control, and nutrient management. Let’s get started by examining pest control.

Pest Control – Rotate Your Planting Times

One of the most common reasons to rotate crops is for pest control. If you were growing a large field of pesticide-free cabbage in the same location, year after year, I bet you’ll end up with a severe cabbage moth problem.

A single cabbage moth can lay 2500 eggs in a season. Even if you are diligent at picking off eggs, let’s say you miss some and ten female cabbage moths make it to maturity and begin to reproduce. Each of them also lays 2500 eggs and has 10 females (and a few males) make it to reproduction. This goes on for a few seasons.

Even with just a minuscule number of survivors, from 1 moth, you jump to 10 moths, from 10 moths to 100, from 100 moths to 1000 in just four seasons. Instead of picking off 2500 eggs, you now have to pick off 2,500,000 eggs! In a field full of cabbage, finding all those eggs is impossible and so the problem grows.

Luckily, it’s easy to break this cycle. Since cabbage moth larva feed pretty exclusively on brassicas or cole crops, take away their food supply and the cabbage moths will have no place to lay their eggs. Without suitable host plants for their eggs, the moths will fly off and look for a better place to lay. Viola, pest problem solved!

Why Field Crop Rotation Practices Will not Help the Home Gardener

For the home garden, though, crop rotation for pest management has to be a bit more strategic than just changing planting locations from year to year. Here’s why.

Let’s say you have a 20 x 20 foot garden. Even if you plant cabbage at the top of your garden one year, and the bottom of your garden the next, cabbage moths still only have to fly 20-40 feet to lay their eggs on a host plant. My garden is 100 x 60 feet and cabbage moths fly over the entire area and then go visit my flower patches an acre away. Trust me, 20-40 feet of difference in planting location isn’t going discourage cabbage moths.

How to Use Crop Rotation Strategies for Pest Control in a Small Garden

For crop rotation to be effective in a small garden, you need to think beyond rotating rows and instead think about rotating the timing of your planting to break up the reproductive cycles and prevent infestations.

To do this, you need to know the life cycle for the pest you are trying to control.

As an example, the cabbage moth typically has two generations of offspring each year. The first starts in mid-spring and the second in late summer. If you are planting cabbage in both spring and fall, you are literally offering cabbage moths the perfect conditions to increase their numbers from year to year.

Strategy 1: Shift your Planting Season

A good rotation strategy for controlling cabbage moths and still getting an annual cabbage crop would be to plant in spring one year and fall the next year. By doing this, you cut off the larva food supply during two reproductive cycles back-to-back. Cabbage moths either get the clue and move on or they fail to reproduce successfully. Either way, you win!

Strategy 2: Start Early or Late using Larger Transplants

If you must plant cabbage in both spring and fall, then starting earlier or later can help. Mature plants can withstand more insect damage than smaller plants. By transplanting larger plants into prepared soil before the cabbage moths begin laying, you can increase your yeilds by giving plants a head start over moths.

The challenge with this strategy  is that cabbage doesn’t always transplant well after it gets bigger. Growth may be stunted plants may suffer shock.

Using paper pots that will quickly decompose in the soil can help limit root damage.

Growing transplants in extremely loose planting medium can also make it easier to relocate plants without causing root damage. Note, loose soil medium often requires more watering and nutrient management than heavier mixes.

Strategy 3: Use Observation and Experience to Create Pest Prevention Rotations That Work

Here’s another example to help you figure out how to use the idea of crop rotation for pest control in your garden.

Our first year here, we planted potatoes in an area that had once been covered with crabgrass. We tilled up the soil, amended with compost, and started planting.

Unfortunately, I barely got any potatoes because we ended up with an infestation of wire worms. Those orange mealy-worm-looking guys love living in the roots of grass. It’s like the wire worm equivalent of a nice little house in the suburbs.

Well, when I swapped their suburban grass roots for potatoes, it was like I took those root eaters to Vegas and told them to have a great time on my tab. They went crazy, decimated my potatoes, and exploded their population in the process. Wire worms gone wild in my potato patch…Yikes!

That experience taught me something though. Don’t plant potatoes after grasses if you have wire worms! Since corn, sorghum, and wheat are grasses, I don’t plant potatoes after those plants for at least two years as a habit now.

Strategy 4: Keep Adapting Your Rotation Plan for New Pests

Good crop rotation for pest management is not just a “set and forget it” kind of activity. It’s something you’ll need to update as new pests make their way into your landscape.

Last year I saw my first blister beetle. Actually, I saw hundreds of them. They were demolishing the leaves of my potato plants. This brand new pest had sailed in and started devouring plants that I’d been growing diligently for over three months.

Well, I wasn’t going to have that! So, I got a bowl of water and started knocking them into it.

My chickens love eating all sorts of beetles. I was about to take those pesky pests to my chickens, when some inkling of intuition told me to identify them first. I covered the bowl and hit the computer.

First site I found started with something like “lethal to livestock”. They call them “blister beetles” because they cause blisters if you squish them by hand. The same substance that causes blisters in humans can kill a chicken with the smallest taste and even take out cattle with large infestations.

More research revealed that pigweed is a host plant for these bugs. I wasn’t growing pigweed, but I was growing Elephant Nose amaranth – pigweed’s city cousin – right next to my potatoes.

I went back to the garden, checked my amaranth plants and discovered even more blister beetles. They were covered with them. Except the blister beetles weren’t eating the amaranth – they were just living there and going across to the neighbors for dinner (e.g. my potatoes). I had found their secret hideout!

Well, down came the amaranth, and out went the blister beetles. I had to pick some more off my potato plants since they apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that I’d destroyed their habitat. However, they didn’t return once I removed the amaranth from my garden.

I had been using amaranth as an exotic edible to sell at the farmers market and as a trap plant for flea beetles since they like it a lot more than my other leafy greens. However, those blister beetles are such bad news that amaranth is now rotated out (of the garden) for good.

Steps For Making Your Own Pest Prevention Crop Rotational Schedule

As you can see, using crop rotation for pest control in a small garden is not just about moving plants to new locations. It is about managing pests by knowing their reproductive cycles, their food and habitat preferences, and using that understanding to plan useful rotations.

I Know it can be a bit tricky to figure it out at first. Try these tips to help plan your strategy.

  1. Start by identifying your most persistent pests.
  2. Study up on how the multiply, what they eat, and where they live.
  3. Use that knowledge to time your planting to interrupt reproductive cycles, limit the pests’ food supplies, and offer less hospitable habitat. Aim to break up at least one reproductive cycle to keep your populations in check. You may need longer interruptions for serious infestations.
  4. If your strategies effectively reduce pest populations, then incorporate them into your planting calendar and crop rotation plan.
  5. Repeat as necessary!

Other Examples of Pest Prevention Crop Rotations

Here are a couple other rotations I have figured out based on our pest pressure that might help you create your own rotations.

1. Squash Bugs

Squash bugs only have one reproductive cycle per year. However they are so good at hiding and flying large distances that it has proven impossible to control them with short interruptions.

Instead, we only grow plants in the curcurbit family for two years, then we take a year off.

We still hand-pick and kill squash beetles. We also  choose varieties like Seminole Pumpkin and a Virginia strain of Waltham Butternut Sqaush that seem less bothered by these pests than other squashes.

During our off year, I arrange to have others grow us squash and cucumbers in exchange for something we are growing. Or I buy from local farmers I trust.

After our yar break, we still have a few squash beetles that have  managed to stick around or found us again. However, their numbers are low and controlling them is easier! This strategy seems to prevent squash borers too.

2. Mexican Bean Beetle

I thought I’d struck gold when I first saw these yellow lady bug looking insects moving in to my garden. Who wouldn’t want thousands of beneficial lady beetles to come eat your aphids and other pests?

Except, these lady beetles were the one kind that is not beneficial to your garden. These were Mexican Bean Beetles. Within days they had consumed by bean leaves and desiccated my vines.

I tried to pick them off.  Since I had planted the three sisters (beans, squash, and corn), I couldn’t find them all and their population exploded (as described for cabbage moths above).

Well, then I noticed that they had left a few plants mostly unscathed. Those were the plants running along my fence, planted on their own, mostly for aesthetic purpose, that I’d been watering regularly because they were closer to my water barrel.

The next year I planted a bunch of beans in a plot by themselves. I neglected them – no watering, no weeding. Those sad little plants still managed to grow and even produce, but they were clearly quite stressed.

When the bean beetles emerged, they went straight for my sad little bean patch. I waited until they had laid their eggs and saw a few larva crawling on the plants. Then I yanked those plants and burned them!

After that I planted my real beans in a different location. I treated my new plants like royalty to ensure good health.  I still had a few bean beetles show up on my well-cared for real beans.  Since I planted those beans on flat trellises rather than as a companion planting, I picked survivors off with ease.

This strategy worked well because bean beetles do most of their laying in June in my area. This still left me plenty of time to plant and grow beans late in the season.

Since I am planting beans later when our temperatures are warmer, I choose varieties that germinate in warmer temperatures and can take the heat. Cowpeas always germinate in high heat, but there are other varieties that work well like scarlet runner beans.

Final Words on Crop Rotation for Pest Control

This might seem like a lot of information to take in.  But I have literally just shared my entire crop rotation plan for controlling pests in my garden.

  1. I use seasonal cabbage rotations to control cabbage moths.
  2. I rotated amaranth out of the vegetable garden permanently.
  3. I take a year off after two years of growing curcurbits.
  4. I grow a trap plant for Mexican Bean beetles and plant my my real bean crop after the mating season for this troublesome pest has passed.

I have a few more pests that visit my garden like Harlequin bugs, aphids, and tomato hornworms. Luckily, their populations are so small, that hand picking is sufficient to keep them in check.

You won’t need to use crop rotation practices for every pest you have, just those that interfere with your production (or that might be dangerous to livestock, like blister beetles). However, there are two other big reasons why good crop rotation is important. And we’ll get to those – pathogen control and nutrition management – in our next two posts.

What kind of insect pests are you dealing with in your garden? Do you use crop rotation to help manage them already? What works? Or has this post sparked some new ideas you might try this year? Please share your challenges, ideas, and successes using the comment area below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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Congratulations, February Certification Graduates!

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Congratulations to the following Community members on completing one or more of our Certifications in February!

As many of you know, one of the perks of membership in our Honors Lab is FREE access to several amazing certifications in our Honors Lab area—and lots more are in the works.

These Certifications dive deep. They’re essentially multi-lesson master classes, full of practical know-how so you can immediately start reaping benefits for yourself, your family, and your garden.

(And if you’re not an Honors Lab member yet, you can gain access to these Certifications + lots more perks of membership by joining today. Click here to learn more!)

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification 

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification

This 8-week course teaches the principles of bio-intensive gardening—one of the easiest, most sustainable ways to produce big, delicious fruits and vegetables!

It covers everything from starting and transplanting seedlings to the basics of garden beds and soil, and from making compost to garden maintenance. There’s even a section on harvesting and processing grains!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members for completing the Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification in February!

  • Robert Held
  • Scott Sexton

 

Home Medicine 101 Certification

Home Medicine 101 Certification

The Home Medicine 101 Certification is a perennial favorite in the Honors Lab!

This eight-week class teaches you how to remedy:

  • Burns, stings, and rashes,
  • Wounds and lacerations,
  • Coughs and colds,
  • Fevers,
  • Indigestion,
  • Anxiety and insomnia,
  • Muscle pain, and
  • Topical infections …

… with readily available plants you may already have growing in your backyard!

Congratulations to the following Community members for completing Home Medicine 101:

  • cathy.marcotte
  • DeniseChristensen
  • emull
  • Heather Duro
  • James Douglas
  • RoseBruno
  • Barefoot Kent
  • Catherine
  • JaneMcCutchen
  • George
  • Ruthie Guten
  • Bonnie Guffey
  • Shelley Buttenshaw
  • Debbie Kennedy
  • cathieonline
  • Emma May HunterHunter
  • janetch2008
  • russraiche
  • ShirleyJohns
  • Markkroneberger
  • Sharon Companion
  • joysong42
  • Carol Harant
  • jonhg
  • Lisa Cannon
  • Ericka Bajrami
  • rachelthudson
  • Patricia McBurney
  • PamWatros
  • Scott Sexton
  • Jane Mobley
  • Kim McClure
  • Waylon Olrick
  • Lisa Carroll

 

Instant Master Gardener Certification

Instant Master Gardener Certification

In just 8 lessons, The Grow Network’s Instant Master Gardener Certification reveals gardening secrets, tips, and tricks that most people spend years discovering.

Lessons include:

  1. “The Secret to a Green Thumb”
  2. “How Much Land Do You Need?”
  3. “The Power of Herbs”
  4. “The Easiest Way to Prepare a Garden Bed”
  5. “Three Facts About Seeds Every Master Gardener Knows”
  6. “Transplanting Baby Plants”
  7. “The Four HUGE Advantages of Backyard Food Production”
  8. “A Homemade Fertilizer So Powerful, You Could Create a Business Out of It”

Congrats to the following Honors Lab members for completing this powerful certification in February:

  • Robert Held
  • PatriciaWolfe
  • tnsh5699
  • Lisa Carroll
  • Scott Sexton

 

Saving Quality Seeds Certification

Saving Quality Seeds

Learn how to save seeds that will ensure an abundant harvest in years to come with the in-depth information in TGN’s Saving Quality Seeds Certification.

This 7-lesson Certification teaches which plants are easiest to save seeds from, how to plan your garden with seed-saving in mind, how to do a garden soil inventory, the basics of dry and wet harvesting, the best way to store seed, how to determine seed quality—and more!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab member on completing this Certification:

  • Scott Sexton

 

Backyard Chickens for Egg Production Certification

I’m excited to announce that we’ve put the finishing touches on another multi-lesson, deep-diving Certification, which has just been added to the Honors Lab:

NEW! Backyard Chickens for Egg Production 

In this awesome new certification, TGN blogger (and homesteader extraordinaire!) Tasha Greer covers everything from breed selection and coop design to flock health and egg storage — plus lots more….

We’ve also got several more certifications in the works, including “Making Home Medicine,” “Backyard Meat Rabbits,” “Bird-watching,” and “Beekeeping.” We’re working with some fantastic experts on these, so you’ll definitely want to check them out in the Honors Lab once they’re ready. Exciting stuff! 🙂

 

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DIY Liquid Fertilizer: The Really Stinking Easy Way to Feed a Large Garden

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As shared in my book Compost Everything, this method of feeding plants allows you to stretch fertility a long, long way and re-use “waste:”

Many people have written in to say how much they appreciate this simple method for creating liquid plant fertilizer.

As Gardener Earth Guy commented on the video:

“This is the absolute best garden trick I’ve learned in a long time. My banana have gotten giant, sweet potato have rope vines, and loquats are getting giant. What doesn’t get a chop ‘n’ drop goes in the bin.”

You can throw in weeds, fruit, kitchen scraps, urine, manure … just find organic matter and throw it in. I like a wide mix. This is a pretty simple batch, only containing moringa, compost, cow manure, and urine. I did get some Epsom Salts after making the video and also threw that in. A 55-gallon drum like this can easily feed 10,000 square feet of corn for a growing season. I know — I’ve done it!

It really beats making “normal” compost and having to spread it all around.

 

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Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification

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In the course of preparing for our Texas Master Gardener Worm Bin Workshop, I came across a lot of inconsistent information. Among the most confusing issues was that many sources both online and in print seem to confuse the terms referring to leachate and worm tea. The same sources also seem to blow it again when talking about worm tea versus aerobic compost tea. It’s easy to find yourself hopelessly confused!

In this article, I hope to demystify the subject a bit and provide clarity on a confusing topic.

 

Myh Worm bin

 

Let’s start with leachate, the liquid that comes off the worm bin.

What is Leachate?

One of the most contentious issues in worm composting is what to do with the leachate. The most common definition of leachate is any liquid that, in the course of passing through matter, extracts soluble or suspended solids, or any other component of the material through which it has passed.

Leachate is a widely used term in the environmental sciences industries, where it has the specific negative meaning of a liquid that has dissolved environmentally harmful substances that may come to enter the environment. But for the purposes of this article, we are defining leachate as the raw liquid runoff (or seepage) that settles in or below the vermicompost or worm castings in a worm bin.

The controversy stems, in large part, from the debate over aerated compost tea versus non-aerated compost tea. Fans of aerated compost tea do not like the fact that worm bin leachate is anaerobic, which they believe encourages the growth of microorganisms unfavorable to plants. They like to point out that worm bin leachate is not aerated compost tea.

This is completely true, but I am not so convinced that this is a big problem. Those critical of using this “worm juice” do make valid points, and I, too, recommend using leachate with care, but I did find two peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of unaerated worm compost leachate: “Vermicomposting Leachate (Worm Tea) as Liquid Fertilizer for Maize” and “Vermicompost Leachate Alleviates Deficiency of Phosphorus and Potassium in Tomato Seedlings.” I also found several Extension Service publications that tout the use of worm bin leachate.

It is not at all unusual for folks to be a little hazy on what to do with their “worm juice.” One lady I spoke with the other day said, “We just changed our bins to add a drainage system. I just pulled the cork out and got nearly two cups of worm juice. My husband is trying to convince me that I should go ahead and feed it to my house plants, but I’m worried that adding this cocktail to my basically inert potting soil might stir up problems. Is it safe to use this stuff as a fertilizer?”

Another person said, “I get this dark liquid from my worm bins. I’m thinking most of the juice came from the castings and might have some great stuff in it, and not a lot of rotten stuff, and that’s why I kind of want to give it to the plants. Is that a bad idea? I just want to know what the heck to do with it. It’s winter here, so I can’t put it on my garden beds outside. I really don’t want to waste it, though! What do people do with it? Do you put it on your house plants, and have you gotten a good reaction from it?”

These are excellent questions. I’ve talked and written about this topic a number of times, but it’s definitely one that continues to confuse people and deserves to be revisited from time to time.

Unfortunately, there seems to be misleading information provided by some worm bin manufacturers (and website owners). The terms “worm tea,” “worm compost tea,” “castings tea,” or “vermicompost tea” should actually refer to the liquid fertilizer created by steeping (soaking) quality castings/compost in water (often aerated) for a period of time.

The problem is that many people refer to the liquid that drains out from a worm bin as “worm tea.” This is incorrect. The proper term for this is actually “leachate.”

Obviously, we’re only talking about semantics here, so it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but keeping the distinction between these terms is actually quite important.

While leachate can certainly have value as a liquid fertilizer (especially when drained from a mature worm bin and diluted), it should be treated with a lot more caution than good-quality worm tea.

As water passes down through a worm bin, it can pick up all sorts of unstable metabolites (various products/intermediates of the decomposition process). If, for example, you have some fairly anaerobic zones in your worm bin, you can end up with various phytotoxins (toxins that can harm plants and humans). Some of these toxins are created by bacteria.

Every worm bin has good and bad microbes. This is perfectly fine and is even expected—provided, of course, that the good ones outnumber the bad ones.

Some leachate can contain harmful pathogens because it has not been processed through the worms’ intestinal tracts. It is often recommended that it should not be used on garden plants you plan to serve to your friends and family.

During decomposition, waste releases liquid from its cell structures as it breaks down. This leachate seeps down through the worm composter into the collection area. The leachate should be drained regularly, and if you are getting more than 2-4 ounces of liquid in a week, the worm composter is probably too wet!

If your composter has a spigot attached, I would recommend leaving the spigot open with a container underneath to catch the leachate. This will prevent it from building up in your system. Just keep an eye on it to make sure your container doesn’t overflow!

If, like me, you have a homemade worm bin, you can keep a drip pan underneath to catch the leachate.

 

worm castings

 

Finished composts are much better to use for brewing worm tea because they are much more uniform in composition, and the vast majority (if not all) the potentially harmful compounds have been converted into something more stabilized.

The microbial community present in these materials tends to be more beneficial, as well.

I’m not trying to scare you here, and I am not implying that leachate is “poison” and should never be used. I’m simply saying that while leachate can have value as a liquid fertilizer, it should be treated with caution. For every story extolling the benefits of using leachate, there is one lamenting problems from having used it.

If you decide you want to use leachate, I recommend taking some extra steps:

1. Do not use it if it smells bad! It should smell like earth (and not gross) when it comes out of the worm composter. If it smells bad, pour it out on an area like a roadway or driveway where it cannot harm living plants or animals.
2. Dilute it at a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate (10:1).
3. Aerate it with an air pump if available.
4. Use it outdoors on shrubs, ornamentals, or flowering plants only. Do not use on plants you intend to eat.

What Is Worm Tea?

Now let’s move on to the next confusing liquid: worm tea. Worm tea is about what it sounds like—worm castings steeped in water for a certain amount of time.

“Fresh earthworm castings contain more organic material—nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium—than soil itself,” according to Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Worm castings and the tea you make from them also ward off root-knot nematodes—a parasitic creature that causes deformed roots and drains nutrients out of plants. Plants like strawberries that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew.

 

Worm tea

 

Making simple worm tea is really nothing more than steeping—much like making any other tea you would drink yourself. It is very easy, and it is good for your plants, too.

In the process of steeping, water is added to the earthworm castings to simply extract the microbes from the castings into the water. The resulting liquid solution is then applied to plants or soil in various ways.

Many bottled teas you see on the shelf use this method.

To make your own, just take a bunch of worm castings and put them in the bottom third of a bucket. Fill the rest of the bucket with rainwater or non-chlorinated water (or tap water left out in the sunlight for 24 hours if you must). Let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Strain out the solids, dilute with water at a 1:1 ratio, and apply directly to your plants or soil.

What is Aerobic Compost Tea?

 

aerobic worm tea

 

Aerobic compost tea is also known as aerobic worm tea, and it is known mostly for its ability to boost microbiological activity in soil by adding beneficial bacteria, fungi, acinomycetes, and protozoa to the soil. It is brewed either by soaking a porous bag full of worm castings in water or by simply dumping the castings into a container of clean, chemical-free water. Molasses, corn syrup, or another microbial food source is then added to the water as a catalyst to stimulate growth of the microbes. And finally, an air-pumping system is installed to create an aerobic (or oxygenated) environment for the multiplying microorganisms.

Aerobic compost tea is beneficial in many ways. The microbes delivered in aerobic compost tea help plants by out-competing anaerobic and other pathogenic organisms within the soil. These beneficial microorganisms can also move in to occupy infected sites on plants’ root and leaf surfaces. Brewing aerobic compost tea speeds up the growth rate of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, and multiplies their numbers exponentially. As a result, this method populates your garden with beneficial microbes more rapidly than applying worm castings alone.

When you spray or pour the tea on the soil, you are not only feeding the plant, but also increasing the number of beneficial microbes in the soil, thus crowding out the bad ones. It has been proven that the tea, along with the castings, can significantly increase plant growth, as well as crop yields, in the short term (a season) and especially in the long term over a period of several seasons.

Along with these great benefits come a boost in the plant’s own immune system, enabling it to resist parasites like the infamous aphid, tomato cyst eelworms, and root-knot nematodes. Plants produce certain hormones that insects find distasteful, so they are repelled. Aerobic compost tea also helps a plant to resist diseases such as Pythium and Rhizoctonia.

When either worm tea or the more effective aerobic compost tea is sprayed on leaves and foliage, detrimental and disease-causing microbes are again outnumbered and cannot grow their numbers to dominate any single plant. The teas also aid the plant in creating the “cuticle,” a waxy layer on top of the epidermis, or plant skin. This waxy surface protects the leaves from severe elements and reduces attacks by certain harmful microorganisms and insects.

Making Your Own Compost Tea

Making any type of organic compost tea involves a few key steps:

  1. Choosing the right compost
  2. Choosing the right nutrients
  3. Brewing and applying the tea correctly

Please note that the instructions below are only meant to give you some background about tea making, not a step-by-step guide on how to make the teas. We provide information on that elsewhere on the site, such as in this article by David the Good:

Read More: “Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Compost”

The compost used in making tea is like the starter you use in making yogurt. The compost inoculates the tea with organisms. Thus, you want the compost you begin with to have a good diversity of beneficial organisms. Worm castings are super for this purpose!

Keep in mind that different plants differ in their soil preferences. Some need a bacteria-dominated soil, others want a fungi-dominated soil, and still others like a soil that’s somewhere in between.

When making an organic compost with more fungi, mix in larger amounts of cardboard, paper, sawdust, wood shavings, and heavy stalk plant material as you prepare the compost. For bacterial dominance, use food waste and green plant waste. Whatever compost you use, be sure it is finished, well-stabilized compost, and that it’s fairly fresh. Again, worm castings are ideal for this.

As I mentioned above, I really like to use rainwater whenever I can, but you can always use dechlorinated water. One old-timer I talked to said he only ever uses pond water to make his compost teas. I have seen his garden, and I can tell you it looks to me like using pond water is a good way to go!

The nutrients you introduce while brewing also influence the finished tea.

To encourage the development of fungi in the tea, you can mix two parts humic acid; two parts yucca, saponin, or aloe vera; and one part fish hydrolyzate or other proteins into the water.

For bacterial dominance, you can feed one liquid ounce blackstrap molasses per gallon of tea and and an equal amount of cold-water kelp. For the molasses, you can also substitute brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup if you like.

 

Raised bed results

 

Go to the library or search online for information on leachate, worm tea, and aerobic compost tea and you will find many sources of conflicting information, mainly over the terminology involved in determining what is actually leachate and what is a worm tea (be it aerobic or simple tea). The main thing to remember is that while any form of worm tea may not sound too appetizing to you and me, our plants will really love it.

Worm tea lets you fertilize without adding bulk to your soil, and water your garden with something really healthy for your plants. Trust me here, your garden will practically jump up and shout “Hallelujah!” when fertilized with either worm tea or aerobic compost tea, and you will be amazed at the growth, flowering, and fruiting that results.

Spray your plants liberally on the leaves, stems, and surrounding soil. Use teas on clay soil to begin its transformation to humus. Use them on your flowers indoors and out, and on your other house plants to feed and nourish both the plants and the soil.

Read More: “Fertilizing Container Gardens: A Beginner’s Guide”

Use teas on your compost pile to introduce the microbial activity and hasten the compost pile’s beneficial breaking-down process. Inoculate the ground surrounding your fruit trees. Use them on manure piles that stink and marvel at how fast the stink and flies go away! A properly brewed worm tea is child, pet, and wildlife friendly.

A few things to keep in mind:

Foliar Spray/Wash: It’s best to spray all surfaces of your plants in the early morning or late afternoon when the suns angle is low and less intense. When possible, do your foliar spraying on clear days, since rain may wash away some of the microbial activity.
Soil Inoculant/Drenching: Always apply teas out of direct, intense sunlight. Use them pure or dilute them (10:1 is a suggested maximum dilution rate). Dilution ratios vary for different application techniques and equipment. An ideal time to apply is during periods of mist or fog, but not heavy rain. Alternately, irrigate a little before your application to ensure the microbes will survive and can travel more quickly and safely to their new job locations. Always use nonchlorinated water.
Smell: If a tea stinks, do not use it on your vegetables, as it is demonstrating anaerobic properties and may contain pathogens. Some suggest you use this stinky mix on an undesirable weed bed!

In Summary

Leachate–The correct word for the dark liquid that comes out of the bottom of your worm bin. If your bin is maintained correctly, you should have very little leachate and what you do have can be used safely (in 1:10 diluted form) on your ornamental plants. Sometimes leachate is incorrectly referred to as “worm tea.” Some sites refer to it as “worm wee,” but even that is technically incorrect.

Simple Worm Tea–A mix of worm castings and water. Useful if you don’t have an air pump but still want some liquid fertilizer from your worm bin.

Aerobic Compost Tea–An aerated mixture of worm castings, nonchlorinated water, and molasses or another microbial food source. It contains an active culture of microorganisms and should be used immediately, otherwise the benefit of aeration is all but lost.

I really hope that this article helps clear things up. I know that many of you may not agree with the terminology I have used in this article, but I think that using the above will help to demystify an area of gardening that can be of great benefit to all of us!

(This article was originally published October 2, 2015.)

 

The post Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification appeared first on The Grow Network.

Simple & Effective Worm Composting (VIDEO)

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While traveling in the Pacific Northwest, I met Peter Paul, who showed me the most amazing—and amazingly simple—idea for an outdoor worm composting bin. Using the help of worms to break down food matter (even meats!), Peter shows you a couple of simple methods for making great homemade compost.

Not only that, this method creates a vibrant compost tea that gave Peter 7-foot-tall tomato plants! He also sometimes trades his “worm juice” for different items … even once for iPhone (LOL).

This is a sample of the kinds of things you’ll learn when you take The Grow Network’s “Instant Master Gardener” certification class. Chock full of useful, doable information for taking your garden to the next level, “Instant Master Gardener” is available to our Honors Lab members as part of their monthly subscription. Click here to learn more!

(This article was originally published on May 19, 2015.)

 

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Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Your Compost

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Don’t Kill Yourself Making Compost!

Long ago, I used to spend a lot of time making big piles of greens and browns—carefully mixed, watered, turned, and sifted…. And yet I never had enough compost to go around.

I’m sure you know the feeling!

I still make piles, since I like to have fine compost for sprinkling on new garden beds and making my own potting mixes; however, I no longer rely on finished compost for the majority of my fertilizing.

Instead, I’ve got a much easier system: compost tea.

Read More: “How to Make Composting Easy”

Watch Me Make Compost Tea

This is my favorite way to make free fertilizer. I use moringa leaves, manure, urine, compost, weeds, and other nitrogen-rich materials. I put them in a big barrel, top it off with water, and then let it rot on down into liquid fertilizer for my gardens. I’ll also add a cup or two of Epsom salts if I have them available for the extra magnesium and sulfur.

After a couple of weeks of sitting in the sun and rotting, you’ve got a compost tea with some serious fertilizing power. Take a look:

How to Use Compost Tea

I’ve fed big plots of corn and other crops effectively with very little trouble and very little material after discovering how well this anaerobic composting method works. It’s similar to Bokashi composting, but without having to buy Bokashi starter. Just let nature take its course, and you’ll have a rich, green garden like I do.

Warning: You don’t want to pour this stuff on your greens or on other crops you’re going to eat right away, as it is most definitely not safe for consumption!

I cover this method in my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, and I’ve had people write in and share their own successful experiments with the “big stinky barrel o’ fertility” method. Give it a try. Aside from the smell, I think you’ll like it.

A Quick Update

Here’s another video I made that offers specifics about my anaerobic compost tea recipe … even more stinky goodness from my “tea pot”! Won’t you be my neighbor?

(This article was originally published July 8, 2016.)

TGN Bi-Weekly Newsletter

 

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‘7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free’

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Last year, David the Good filmed a fun (and funny) presentation for The Grow Network’s Home Grown Food Summit on how you can keep your garden fed and maximize the nutrition in your food without spending a dime.

Well, we’re a Community of sustainability-minded DIYers who like to find ways to turn trash into garden treasure, so is it any wonder that David’s video on “7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free” ended up being one of the event’s most popular presentations? (Plus, you know, David is just a likeable, funny guy, so that probably helped, too. 🙂 )

Read More: “Homemade Fertilizers—15 Simple and Inexpensive Options”

Anyway, David posted this video on YouTube on February 4, aaaaaand it’s already got more than 10,000 views. Translation? You should watch it now, too! 🙂

Here it is:

As David says, “The presentation clocks in at about 45 minutes long and should be a great inspiration for your spring gardening plans.”

Amen to that!

Then, let your TGN Community know in the comments: What are some other ways you like to feed your garden for free?

 

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Congratulations, Members, on Completing These Certifications!

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Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members on completing one or more of our Certifications!

As many of you know, one of the perks of membership in our Honors Lab is FREE access to several amazing certifications in our Honors Lab area—and lots more are in the works.

These Certifications dive deep. They’re essentially multi-lesson master classes, full of practical know-how so you can immediately start reaping benefits for yourself, your family, and your garden.

(And if you’re not an Honors Lab member yet, you can gain access to these Certifications + lots more perks of membership by joining today. Click here to learn more!)

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification 

Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification

This 8-week course teaches the principles of bio-intensive gardening—one of the easiest, most sustainable ways to produce big, delicious fruits and vegetables!

It covers everything from starting and transplanting seedlings to the basics of garden beds and soil, and from making compost to garden maintenance. There’s even a section on harvesting and processing grains!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members for completing the Bio-Intensive Gardening Certification!

  • Brian Moyers
  • Debbie Kennedy
  • Jennifer Walton
  • Alice Krueger
  • Ann Kudlicki
  • Carole Barrett
  • Chantal Turcotte
  • David Clark
  • Diane Jandt
  • Ellie Strand
  • Fern Cavanaugh
  • George Griggs
  • HP P
  • James Tutor
  • Keith Gascon
  • Kristina Head
  • Lori Rupp-Reagle
  • Lyndsy Schlup
  • Marlene Wild
  • Michael Clayton
  • Michael Oden
  • paulasmith
  • Rachel Tardif
  • Revola Fontaine
  • Robert Wohlfiel
  • Rogers George
  • Saunya Hildebrand
  • Shawn Skeffington
  • Stephen Biernesser
  • Stephen Bolin
  • Susan Faust
  • tnsh5699
  • William Torres

Home Medicine 101 Certification

Home Medicine 101 Certification

The Home Medicine 101 Certification is a perennial favorite in the Honors Lab!

This eight-week class teaches you how to remedy:

  • Burns, stings, and rashes,
  • Wounds and lacerations,
  • Coughs and colds,
  • Fevers,
  • Indigestion,
  • Anxiety and insomnia,
  • Muscle pain, and
  • Topical infections …

… with readily available plants you may already have growing in your backyard!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members for completing Home Medicine 101:

  • Raelene Norris
  • Alfredo Moreno
  • Alice DeLuca
  • Alice Krueger
  • Alta Blomquist
  • Amanda Gossett
  • Amy Blight
  • Amy Marquardt
  • Andrea Hill
  • Angel Hartness
  • Angela Wilson
  • Anna Zingaro
  • Anne McNally
  • Annette Coder
  • Antony Chomley
  • Arlene Woods
  • Barry Williams
  • Beth Zorbanos
  • Bohn Dunbar
  • Bonnie Shemie
  • Brenda Thompson
  • Brian Moyers
  • Camilla-Faye Muerset
  • Cara Hettich
  • Carol Bandi
  • Carol Ryerson
  • Carole Barrett
  • Carolyn Winchester
  • Carra
  • Catie Ransom
  • Chantale Mitchell
  • Charles Marian
  • Chelsea
  • Cherisbiz
  • Christi Crane
  • Christina Hawk
  • Christine Lawler
  • Christine Sadilek
  • Cindy Farley
  • Constantine Spialek
  • Craig Mackie
  • Cynthia Parker
  • Dale Bolton
  • Daniel Shook
  • Danielle Stenger
  • Dave Danner
  • Debbi Sander
  • Debbie Ford
  • Debbie Hill
  • Deborah Scribner
  • Debra Jensen
  • Debra Miller
  • Denise Callahan
  • Desiree Garcia
  • Diane Devine
  • Diane Jandt
  • Diane Massey
  • Dianna Burton
  • Don Wong
  • Donna Detweiler
  • Donna Norman
  • Dr. Carol Viera
  • Ellen Reh-Bower
  • Emily Bell
  • Emma Dorsey
  • Felicitas & Leandro Cometa
  • Fern Cavanaugh
  • Gail Maynard
  • Gary Flinchbaugh
  • George Griggs
  • Gilbert Sieg
  • Gina Jeffries
  • Ginger Cline
  • Hannelore Chan
  • Heather Munoz
  • Helen Bailey
  • Helen McGlynn
  • HP P
  • Irida Sangemino
  • Jamie Birchall
  • jamingo62
  • Jane Burkheimer
  • Janna Huggins
  • Jaudette Olson
  • Jessica Bonilla
  • Jessica Conley
  • Jim Hadlock
  • Jodee Maas
  • John Kempf
  • Jouski
  • Joyce Tallmadge Tallmadge
  • Judith Johnson
  • Julene Trigg
  • Julian San Miguel
  • Julie Kahrs
  • Juliet Wimp
  • Justin Talbot
  • Karen Brennan
  • Karen Suplee
  • Kat Sturtz
  • Katherine Keahey
  • Kathy O’Neal
  • Kathy Williams
  • Kelly Pagel
  • Kim Adelle Larson
  • Kim Kelly
  • Kim Osborne
  • Kimberley Burns-Childers
  • Kimberly Dolak
  • Kimberly Martin
  • Kristen Fitzgerald
  • Kristen McClellan
  • Laura Elliott
  • Laura Riches
  • Laurie Swope
  • LeanneTalshshar
  • Leediafast Bailey
  • Leslie Carl
  • Liann Graf
  • Linda
  • Linda Adair
  • Linda Beeth
  • Linda Cavage
  • Linda Grinthal
  • Linda Maes
  • Linda Raymer
  • Lisa Emerson
  • Lisa O’Connell
  • Lois Pratt
  • Lori Rupp-Reagle
  • Lori Spry
  • Lyudmila Kollin Kollin
  • Mandi Golman
  • Mandy Allen
  • Marcel Legierse
  • Marie Kidd
  • Marilyn Lange
  • Marjorie Hamrick
  • Marlene Moore
  • Martha Stanley
  • Mary Atsina
  • Mary Coons
  • Mary Dove
  • Mary Holt
  • Mary Sanderson
  • MaryAnn Kirchhoffer
  • Michael Hedemark
  • Michele Langford
  • Michelle Messier
  • Mike Scheck Scheck
  • Millicent Drucquer
  • Mimi Neoh
  • Monika Thompson
  • Nancy K. Young
  • Natalie Burton
  • Nellie Bhattarai
  • Nikki Follis
  • Nikki Thompson
  • Pamela Morrison
  • Patricia Scholes
  • Paula Frazier
  • Pete Lundy
  • Phil Tkachuk
  • Rachel Tardif
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  • Rebecca Riddle
  • Renee Hume
  • Revola Fontaine
  • Richard T. Tungate
  • Rick Horton
  • Robert Harris
  • Robert Kennedy
  • Robin Marshall
  • Rochelle Eisenberger
  • Rodger Huffman
  • Rogers George
  • Ruth Hester
  • Ruth Macrides
  • Ryan Johnston
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  • Samantha Stokes
  • Sandi Huston
  • Sandra Mikesell
  • Sarah Cowan
  • Sarah Schwartz
  • Shalise Klebel
  • Sharon Marsh
  • Shawn Elmore
  • Shelly B.
  • Shelly Vogt
  • Sherry Hofecker
  • Steve Frazier
  • Sue Mortensen
  • Susan Abdullah
  • Susan Auckland
  • Susan Friesen
  • Susan Gray
  • Susan Phillips
  • Suzanne Oberly
  • Tammy Gresham
  • Tamora Gilbert
  • Teresa Elston
  • Teri Moote
  • Terra Eckert
  • Terry Bomar
  • Theresa McCuaig
  • Theresa Schultz
  • Tracie Velazquez
  • Wanita Martinelli
  • Wendy Meredith
  • William Torres

Instant Master Gardener Certification

Instant Master Gardener Certification

In 8 lessons, The Grow Network’s Instant Master Gardener Certification reveals gardening secrets, tips, and tricks that most people spend years discovering.

Lessons include:

  1. “The Secret to a Green Thumb”
  2. “How Much Land Do You Need?”
  3. “The Power of Herbs”
  4. “The Easiest Way to Prepare a Garden Bed”
  5. “Three Facts About Seeds Every Master Gardener Knows”
  6. “Transplanting Baby Plants”
  7. “The Four HUGE Advantages of Backyard Food Production”
  8. “A Homemade Fertilizer So Powerful, You Could Create a Business Out of It”

Congrats to the following Honors Lab members for completing this powerful certification:

  • Brian Moyers
  • Debbie Kennedy
  • Dianne
  • Jennifer Walton
  • Aldo
  • Alice Krueger
  • Andrea Hill
  • Annie Degabriele
  • Barb
  • Beth Zorbanos
  • Bonnie Tyler
  • Bryson Thompson
  • bydawnsearlylite
  • Christina Hawk
  • Christy Dominguez
  • csells815
  • Cynthia Parker
  • David Clark
  • Debbie
  • Debbie Kennedy
  • Deborah Gonzales
  • Debra Frazier
  • Debra Hollcroft
  • Doc Hecker
  • Elmer Caddell
  • Gary Conter
  • Gayle Lawson
  • Geraldine Christmas
  • Gregg
  • HP P
  • Ibeneon
  • James Judd
  • Jamie Barker
  • Jeanette Tuppen
  • jeff780
  • Jennifer Johnson
  • JoAnn
  • Joe Prohaska
  • John Kempf
  • Karen
  • Karyn Pennington
  • Katycasper
  • Kcasalese
  • Keith Gascon
  • Kenneth
  • Laura Mahan
  • Leah Kay Olmes
  • Lisa Blakeney
  • Lori Rupp-Reagle
  • Marti Noden
  • Mary Falkner
  • Megan Venturella
  • metaldog227
  • Michael Clayton
  • Michael Merriken
  • Michael Dirrim
  • Nicole Mindach
  • Philip Vance
  • Rachel Tardif
  • Robert Wohlfiel
  • Robin
  • Rogers George
  • Ron Atkinson
  • Samantha Straw
  • Sammabrey
  • Sandy
  • Shawn Skeffington
  • Sheila Robadey
  • Sherry Ankers
  • Sherry Baer
  • Spraygsm
  • Stacey
  • Teddy Plaisted
  • Teresa Wolf
  • William Torres

Saving Quality Seeds Certification

Saving Quality Seeds

Learn how to save seeds that will ensure an abundant harvest in years to come with the in-depth information in TGN’s Saving Quality Seeds Certification.

This 7-lesson Certification teaches which plants are easiest to save seeds from, how to plan your garden with seed-saving in mind, how to do a garden soil inventory, the basics of dry and wet harvesting, the best way to store seed, how to determine seed quality—and more!

Congratulations to the following Honors Lab members on completing this Certification:

  • Debbie Kennedy
  • Brian Moyers
  • Diane Jandt
  • Gary Conter
  • HP P
  • Janna Huggins
  • Phil Tkachuk
  • William Torres

Backyard Chickens for Egg Production Certification

I’m excited to announce that we’re putting the finishing touches on another multi-lesson, deep-diving certification, which will be added to the Honors Lab very soon:

Backyard Chickens for Egg Production 

In this awesome new certification, TGN blogger (and homesteader extraordinaire!) Tasha Greer covers everything from breed selection and coop design to flock health and egg storage — plus lots more….

We’ve also got several more certifications in the works, including “Making Home Medicine,” “Backyard Meat Rabbits,” “Bird-watching,” and “Beekeeping.” We’re working with some fantastic experts on these, so you’ll definitely want to check them out in the Honors Lab once they’re ready. Exciting stuff! 🙂

 

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No Till Gardening: Homesteading Basics (VIDEO)

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Should You Till Your Garden?

In this episode of our ongoing video series Homesteading Basics, Marjory goes into some detail on the basics of no till gardening. Cultivating the earth, working the land, putting your hand to the plow … it’s a time-honored tradition, alright. But is it always the best thing to do?

If you’re a no-till evangelist, please don’t freak out when you see Marjory standing in front of this big John Deere tractor. Give her a chance to explain, because, as she puts it, “I’m a pretty low-tech wheelbarrow and shovels type of gal.”

The One Straw Revolution Viewpoint

If you’ve never read The One Straw Revolution, you might consider checking that out. Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese gentleman who passed away back in 2008. He studied plant pathology at university, and then worked for the Japanese customs office as a produce inspector for several years.

While he was studying and practicing in state-of-the-art facilities, he was also developing an understanding that nature is a force so large and powerful that all of man’s efforts to control and subdue her are futile. He decided to prove his theories by taking over his father’s citrus farm in the countryside.

What happened next is very telling. When he initially discontinued the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that had been used on the farm … well, it fizzled. The trees grew crowded, they fruited little, and then they died. They had been dependent on synthetic inputs—and when Fukuoka cut those synthetic inputs off, the weak plants couldn’t survive.

He took steps to begin healing the soil and started another orchard from scratch. In his fields, he had found that if he rotated his crops with care, he could use each season’s chaff to mulch and fertilize the field for the next season. He used excess mulch from his fields and nitrogen-fixing weeds like white clover, and his new orchard thrived without synthetic inputs. Fukuoka believed that never tilling the soil was a key factor in his success.

Read More: Microbes 2.0 – A Tiny Manifesto

No Till Gardening

Since The One Straw Revolution was published in 1978, we’ve gained a lot of knowledge about why tilling the soil is sometimes a very bad idea. The microscopic life in the soil is concentrated in the top few inches of soil. When we till, we destroy the sensitive soil microbiome in those top few inches.

Elaine Ingham provides a great guide to understanding the complexity of soil life in her Soil Biology Primer. I also really enjoyed Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming With Microbes. As Marjory mentioned, John Jeavons’ Grow Biointensive® method is one popular vegetable gardening philosophy that has really embraced the importance of a strong soil microbiome.

Modern gardeners have taken the hint pretty well. While seasonal tilling is still commonplace in industrial growing operations, more and more gardeners are leaving the tiller in the shed each spring, and relying on natural tools like microbes, worms, and roots to keep their soil from compacting.

As Marjory mentions, sometimes you really can’t get around tilling if you want to grow vegetables in raw ground that has never been worked. But after your garden has been established, there’s really no need for tilling in a backyard setting. Give no till gardening a try and your soil microbiome will thank you!

(This article was originally published on July 13, 2016. We had a couple of questions on no-till gardening in heavy clay soils during last week’s Ask Me Anything! podcast, so we thought it was a good time to bring this oldie but goodie out of the archives!) 

 

Simple and Effective Watering Systems for Small Livestock

 

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The Laws of Nature: A Touchstone for Gardening

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As a rule, when we grow plants, we follow some known practices. The practices may be based on our own experience, on the wisdom of our parents and grandparents, or on scientific research. Whatever the source, it is useful to examine the practices through the lens of the Laws of Nature, sometimes referred to as ecological principles.

The Laws of Nature are broad and substantive statements for how nature functions.

So the question becomes, “Are our plant-growing practices in harmony with or in conflict with the Laws of Nature?”

What other criteria would we use for how we treat our lands, the soils, and all ecosystems, if not the Laws of Nature?

I think of this as a pyramid, with practices on the top, undergirded by Laws of Nature criteria. Then, the practices and Laws are undergirded by our personal land-use ethics.

9 Laws of Nature

Below, I’ve listed nine Laws of Nature.

This list is not fully inclusive; some may seem to be more pertinent than others; and someone else may choose to describe them in a different manner. Nevertheless, they are all statements that hold true, with rare exceptions.

In my garden, if a practice violates a Law of Nature, I look for a substitute practice that is in harmony with the Law.

This broad topic has deep implications and is worthy of further study. The more we understand and apply these Laws, the more we can grow healthier crops, become healthier ourselves, and more fully appreciate the magnificence of nature.

Calvin Bey - Harmony Gardens

#1: Everything in Nature Is Connected

It’s like a huge spider web. Every spot on the web is connected to the whole web. All the factors effecting growth and development—from the minerals in the air to the plant’s physiological processes to the soil microbes to hundreds of additional factors—are all part of the whole.

The implications of this concept are significant.

For example, apply too much nitrogen and the plants get a pretty green color, but at the same time produce an excessive amount of simple carbohydrates, which are ideal foods for the ever-present aphids.

Chemicals and other toxins that reduce soil microorganisms have impacts on soil mineralization and soil digestion processes, which all affect quality and quantity of production. For example, if your soil has a shortage of available calcium, a tomato plant is not likely to set fruit.

Laws of Nature - Mile-High Corn - Calvin Bey

#2: Plants Are Designed to be Healthy

Like humans and other living organisms, plants have an immune system that makes them resistant to insects and diseases that are native to their environment. Plants become weak and sick when they become stressed because of environmental factors, inadequate nutrition, and/or exposure to toxins.

Chemical pesticides and fertilizers create plant and soil conditions that are not conducive to the desirable bacteria and fungi in the soil. The soil microbiome is part of the plant’s defense mechanism.

#3: Insects and Disease Are the Appropriate Response to the Existing Conditions

Insect problems and disease are the result of plant weakness, not the cause of plant weakness. When we improve the conditions, we improve plant resistance. Diseases are nature’s demolition crew and insects are nature’s garbage collectors. Both are appropriate when plants are stressed. Unhealthy plants actually send signals to the insects so they can perform their meaningful designed role.

#4: Mineral Nutrition Supports Plant Immunity

When plant growth is supported with proper mineral nutrition, plants will create higher-order compounds—for example, plant secondary metabolites like essential oils. This and other enzyme developments can lead to optimum levels of health and immunity.

The thousands of enzymes needed in metabolic processes each require a mineral “enzyme cofactor” to function. Without the mineral cofactors, enzyme pathways collapse and plants accumulate soluble compounds in plant sap, leading to pest infestations as plant health begins to fall apart.

#5: Microbial Metabolites Are More Efficient Than Simple Ions as a Source of Nutrition

The ultimate level of plant nutrition and immunity exists when plants can absorb the majority of their nutritional requirements as microbial metabolites. In this model, the soil microbial community serves as the plant’s digestive system. A complex community of soil microorganisms digest and break down organic residues and plant root exudates. In this digestive process, minerals are extracted from the soil mineral matrix and released in a bioavailable form that plants absorb and utilize very efficiently.

Laws of Nature - Strawberry Harvest - Calvin Bey

#6: When Fruit Quality Improves, Yields Increase

When management emphasis is placed on plant nutrition to improve quality, the immunity of the crop increases, creating higher yields, longer produce shelf-life, improved flavor, and reduced dependence on pesticides.

This fundamentally different approach to plant nutrition can lead to yield increases ranging from 10–30 percent. Yield increases come in not only bushels per acre, but also in higher test weights, increased protein production, and increased nutrition per acre.

#7: Healthy Plants Create Healthy Soil—an Investment in Their Own Future

It is commonly understood that healthy soils create healthy plants. The reverse is also true.

Healthy plants create healthy soils.

Healthy plants with high levels of energy can, at times, send as much as 70 percent of their total photosynthates (manifested as sugars, amino acids, and other compounds) into the roots, and then out through the roots and into the soil. Those root exudates are the fuel that feed the soil microbial community and lead to the rapid formation of organic matter.

This process, called carbon induction, is the fastest and most efficient way to sequester carbon and build soil organic matter.

It is an advantage to the plants to invest in soil building. Root exudates rapidly build humic substances. Humic compounds last in the soils for many years. In the end, the entire process ends up rapidly building soil health. It’s another win-win for nature.

#8: Genetic Variability in Plants Serves as a Buffering System

Plant variability allows for selective fitting of plant genetics to specific qualitative differences in the environment. It’s like an insurance plan, with the goal of increased probability of improved plant survival and growth. There are positive synergistic effects, above and below ground, that result from creating diversity through the mixing of species.

#9: Weeds Are a Barometer of Soil Health

We know that different crops have different soil, mineral, and soil biology requirements. So, too, with weeds. When compared to healthy domesticated crops, weeds are usually pioneering (first to enter) species that thrive in soils with imbalanced microbial and nutritional profiles. As soil health improves, crops will improve and weeds will lose their vigor. The weeds are no longer needed to correct the soil imbalances.

Laws of Nature - Harvest Basket - Calvin Bey

Take-Home Lessons

To sum up how nature functions in nine Laws certainly does not do justice to the topic nor does it show the magnificence of nature. Still, despite the inadequacies, the nine Laws are sufficient to provide guidance as to which gardening practices fit the Laws of Nature model.

The following list of gardening practices, which I use in my natural/organic garden in Northwest Arkansas, respect the Laws of Nature. Furthermore, the practices fit my personal land-ethics values.

I do these things to eat healthy food, to teach others, and especially for the children and future generations.

I hope you will consider joining in the transformation.

  1. Use no or at least minimum tillage. Never use a roto-tiller. Besides destroying the natural soil structure, roto-tillers will seriously damage the beneficial fungi in all kinds of soil situations.
  2. Keep the soil covered with a vegetable crop, cover crop, or some type of organic mulch at all times. This practice will promote soil microbial life.
  3. Keep something growing on the beds for as long as possible throughout the year. Where you can, grow crops specifically for deep-root penetration and/or high carbon production.
  4. Wherever possible, encourage diversity of species. Use companion planting where you can.
  5. Use organic fertilizers, compost (sparingly), bio-pesticides (if needed), filtered or structured water, foliar fertilizer sprays, natural biologicals for organic matter decomposition, and natural amendments (like paramagnetic rock) for plant fortification.
  6. Among all things, “communicate” with your garden through positive intentions. Remember: “Thoughts become actions. Choose the good ones.”

Thanks to John Kempf of Advancing Eco-Agriculture (www.advancingecoag) for some of the ideas included in this article.

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Banana Trees: Tips for Planting and Growing (Even During a Cold Snap!)

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Living in Florida, there are lots of tropical plants around, among them fruit trees. Our new property is on the border of Zone 8 and 9, so it is still possible to grow tropical fruits as well as some heat-tolerant stone fruits such as nectarines and peaches. We planted several different types of food-producing trees on our property in expectation of having a house there and enjoying the bounty.

Banana Tree Missteps

One of the first fruit trees we acquired for free was a banana tree. I planted it among some large palms in an area that I knew would get lots of water.

I gave it kitchen scraps from making salads and other plant-based foods, and it thrived.

I made the mistake of giving it some cooked bone scraps, and it promptly died.

My second gifted banana tree was planted on property that is still undeveloped land. We had other tropical plants growing there such as avocado, mango, and guava, and I created a barrier around the garden area with old logs and branches piled up on three sides. I thought this would be sufficient to keep it from getting too cold during the winter, but again, I was wrong, and this banana tree also bit the dust.

Read More: “The Top 10 Tropical Staple Crops”

That was almost a year ago.

When the hurricanes whipped through Florida in September, a friend of mine who had a yard full of mature banana trees lost most of them. So, while Mother Nature sometimes conspires against us, at least I am not the only one who has had problems keeping banana trees around

Another neighbor who lives about a block away had a stand of banana trees along his fence and these managed to survive the hurricanes, although the fence was completely ripped up. When I noticed that he was replacing his fence and taking out some of the banana trees, I stopped my car to ask what they were planning to do with them.

Read More: Build a Community in 9 Easy Steps

I was told that the trees were going to be discarded, so I offered to take them away with the help of my husband and his truck. About an hour later, we took the truck over and filled the back with banana trees!

Planting Rescued Trees in Winter

Knowing that winter is upon us and can drop the temperature at any time, we headed up to our property with the banana trees, a load of abandoned bamboo, several gallons of graywater, a few weeks of kitchen scraps (all plant matter), and some shovels. Along the way, we picked up a few bales of straw and potting soil—some with fertilizer, some without.

  • We dug a trench about two or three feet deep and a bit more than a foot wide, then added the kitchen scraps (to provide moisture and heat from decomposition) and the potting soil.
  • Next, we added the banana trees, placing them close together the way they normally grow.
  • After that, we put the excavated dirt back in to hold up and secure the trees, and installed four-foot lengths of bamboo vertically around the hole and fairly close together.
  • You may be wondering what the straw is for…. Insulation! We packed the inside of the bamboo enclosure with straw about three feet high, and then watered the enclosure with the graywater we brought.

Since that weekend, we have had some fiercely cold weather in Florida—two inches of snow in the Panhandle!

What about the banana trees?

They are still holding up, but even in the worst-case scenario where the tops are frozen, the bottoms should still be okay. We will trim them down at the end of February to give new growth a chance.

Once we get our ducks, the duck pond will go in nearby to feed the banana trees and the other tropical plants that will appreciate the fertilizer-rich soup that the ducks will produce. A chance meeting with a person in our area who will be moving this year brought us a free liner for the duck pond and loads of other materials that we can use to improve our homestead.

Banana trees, bamboo, pond liners, and more all came our way through a little communication!

 

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