The Composting Book is Here!

Mini Farming Guide to Composting compostbook

Over the years I have received more questions about composting than any other subject. I cover the essentials of thermophilic composting in Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but even though that form of composting is generally considered ideal, it is also the most labor intensive and not everyone interested in sustainability and self-sufficiency has either the time or the physical ability to shovel (literally) tons of compost.

The second most frequent questions I get pertain to soil fertility and soil management. Composting is intimately tied to these issues.

So the solution for me was simple: write a very comprehensive book on composting, soil fertility and soil management from a sustainability/MiniFarming perspective. Because this book was written following years of both reader feedback and personal experimentation, I am really pleased with the results and I’m sure you will be pleased too!

Everybody and his brother covers aerobic thermophilic composting, and so do I. After all, thermophilic composting is the only approved method for USDA certified Organic growing. But what is very rarely covered (if at all!) is anaerobic composting. I cover anaerobic and mesophilic composting thoroughly while also giving instructions on how to make your own anaerobic digester. Anaerobic and mesophilic composting are especially valuable if you have physical or time limitations. Because anaerobic composting can introduce safety issues, I very clearly spell out how to use anaerobic digesters and mesophilic compost safely.

If you have ever tried to save your kitchen scraps for composting, you’ve quickly discovered your indoor compost bin becomes a noxious fly-attractant. For those who like to compost indoors (or would like to do so, if only it didn’t smell so badly!), I have covered vermicomposting (composting inside using earth worms) and also an indoor rotating mesophilic aerobic composting bin and system. I’ve used both systems in my own home very successfully and I explain how to make them work for you.

The past few years have seen a large number of major natural disasters in the United States. In any disaster where running water and electricity become unavailable, one of the most urgent needs is proper sanitation when toilets won’t flush. Anywhere in the world without proper sanitation systems sees large numbers of deaths from diarrhea arising from the uncontrolled spread of intestinal pathogens. To make sure you know how to handle this, I dedicate a chapter to the proper handling and composting of human feces, showing both my own humanure toilet and humanure composting bin.

Compost tea has become popular. I cover the basics in Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but in this book, The MiniFarming Guide to Composting, I cover compost tea in depth. Not only do I demonstrate how to brew your own inexpensively, but I also cover the pros-and-cons of which compost is best to use for making compost tea and safety considerations in its use. Compost tea is not without controversy, but I demonstrate the difference in makes in soil bacteria populations with photographs I took through my microscope.

Though this book is among the most comprehensive on composting, I don’t short-change soil fertility! Composting is obviously a cornerstone of self-sufficiency and sustainable farming methods, but in order to know how much compost to add to your garden, you have to know how to measure the current biological fertility of your soil. I give two methods of how to do that. I also cover soil amendments for both macro and micro nutrients extensively, including all of the formulas needed for making your own fertilizers. Though I explain biochar in one of my earlier books, in this book I not only explain it more extensively, I even show how to make your very own biochar reactor and explain how it works.

When I look back at this book and all that it contains, I am really amazed. I can’t believe both the depth and breadth of information I crammed into it while still keeping it readable. When you’re done with this book, you’ll be a composting Ninja! Do not, however, blame me if unenlightened people look askance at your vermicomposting bin or composting toilet!

The MiniFarming Guide to Composting is available at finer book stores along with:

Amazon Barnes and Noble Indie Bound

Horse meat and trusting yourself

As a source of protein, objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with eating horse in preference to cow or pig. Horse meat contains twice as much iron as cow meat, a whopping THIRTY TIMES more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and twice as much vitamin B12. Plus, it carries no risk of mad cow disease. (1)

So I’m certainly not telling you not to eat horse if you are so inclined.

The problem is that you have a right to know what you are eating, and a huge scandal has recently gripped Europe where it was found that everything from Burger King Whoppers to frozen dinners advertised as beef really contained horse. (2)

At issue here is the fact you cannot always trust what other people say, particularly when there is a financial motive involved. Ultimately, sales is sales and selling a used car or whole life insurance is not much different than selling a burger or organic food. Sales and marketing are complex fields that invest untold millions into studies that improve the manipulation of human perceptions and behavior in order to separate people from their hard-earned cash.

There is a reason why so many boxes in the cereal aisle are yellow: yellow boxes appear bigger. Cynical? Not me — I’m not the guy who decided to make them yellow after studies showed people would perceive yellow boxes to contain more product even when they contained less. When you get a chance, check out a “one quart” jar of tomato sauce in the grocery store and you’ll quickly notice it is shaped to appear like a quart jar but has been downsized to contain only 28 or even 24 ounces of product.

The people who make the food in stores are not in the business of improving either your health or your budget. They are in the business of making money. There’s nothing wrong with making a buck, but it makes sense to realize that there are times when your family’s interests and those of a global food conglomerate do not converge.

As the horse meat scandal proves, even in countries with incredible levels of government regulation and punitive laws, “compliance” is largely a matter of hiring accountants, clerks and lawyers to fill out forms and paperwork and very little ACTUAL oversight takes place. Mostly these regulations serve to create barriers to entry that keep small operators from competing and protect the profits of existing large operators rather than actually keep people safe.

The National Organic Program in the United States is much the same. The standards are incredibly strict, and certification requires the payment of fees (sometimes quite substantial fees), the filing and maintenance of tons of paperwork regarding farm methods and provenance of materials and even a walk through inspection. But what it does NOT require is testing of the soil to make sure the farmer doesn’t have a bucket of malathion or carbaryl out back that he uses when the walk through is over. In other words, compliance with the standards is, in effect, little more than paperwork and a walk-through inspection from a person whose paycheck is made possible by the issuance of organic certifications.

No doubt, the overwhelming preponderance of organic producers really are in compliance because they are conscientious individuals committed to both the spirit and letter of the National Organic Program. Just like most cow meat in Europe comes from cows instead of horses and I’m sure you can usually trust that Burger King’s burgers are made from cows. But there is no guarantee. And there is even LESS of a guarantee when you consider that this time of year most organic produce is literally flown in from countries in Asia and South America. The governments of most of these countries make a disturbingly regular habit of “disappearing” people simply for the opinions they hold — so how much can you trust that the produce exported is really organic? There are no protections for whistle-blowers in such places.

What’s my point?

My point is that YOUR self interest and that of your family does converge. There is no competing interest where maybe you can squeeze out an extra dime of profit by lying to your kids about what you spray on your garden or what you feed your chickens. Your supply chain is simple and easily seen and understood: from your garden to your kitchen. You see it all and understand it all.

You can’t and shouldn’t live your life in a state of perpetual paranoia. That would be paralyzing. But what you should do, as much as possible, is ascertain the business ethics of entities from whom you purchase goods and services and, as much as practical, make and supply your own. I have no opinion over whether or not a person should eat horse. But I believe that if you are going to eat horse, or malathion or anything else, you should know that’s what you are doing.

 

(1) http://science.kqed.org/quest/2011/01/07/how-nutritious-is-horse-the-other-red-meat/

(2) http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/09/world/europe/uk-horsemeat-probe/index.html

Weymouth Garden Club, 1/12/13@10:30am

I will be speaking at the Weymouth Garden Club on Saturday, January 12th, 2013 at 10:30am.

I’ll be speaking about why you should endeavor to grow your own vegetables, the economic benefits of sustainable practices on a small scale, and other aspects of food self-sufficiency.

The meeting will be held at 8 Nevin Road, South Weymouth, MA.

I will be happy to sign books!  I will also have some for sale, and the profit will be donated to help the Weymouth Garden Club promote gardening!

Planting Nature’s Way

I save a lot of seeds, sometimes factors more seeds than I will ever need simply because it is easy to save them. This means I can afford to experiment with planting methods without it costing me an arm and a leg.

When we are mini-farming, we are in many respects simply adapting natural processes for our convenience. It therefore stands to reason that we can take a few cues from nature to save a bit of labor or time our planting perfectly.

Nature is pretty savvy. Plants and seeds in the wild just seem to know what to do and when to do it. Have you ever seen a bunch of tender weeds killed by a late frost? No? Me either. It just doesn’t happen because nature knows exactly when to sprout those weed seeds for the longest growing season without danger of a sudden frost.

In the past, I have correlated the sprouting or blooming of certain plants in my area with when I should plant certain things. For example, broccoli goes in the ground just a week after my apple trees bloom. But over the past couple of years I have noticed some other interesting things.

One thing I’ve noticed is that if I leave a tomato behind to rot on a bed, the next year those seeds will sprout of their own accord. This isn’t exactly a newsflash but the implications are tremendous because I have tried this for a couple of years and even though those tomatoes emerge well before I would usually plant, they are never frost-killed. This means nature does for my tomatoes exactly what it does for weeds.

Now, because I do bed rotation I wouldn’t leave those young plants in the same bed where their parents grew the year before — instead, I would dig them up and put them in the new location. And it works.

Think about this for just a moment. Instead of gathering up a dozen slightly over-ripe tomatoes of the variety I want to plant next year and going through the whole wet method of seed saving,  I smash those tomatoes in the bed where I want to grow those tomatoes next year. The next spring, the seedlings emerge and I just weed out all but the strongest at proper spacing. I saved no seed and a grew no seedlings. Instead, I just let nature do the work for me and all I had to do was a bit of thinning for five minutes. As a bonus, there is no transplant shock or any other difficulty. I just prepare my bed in the fall and smash the tomatoes where I want them in that bed.

Obviously, this won’t work if you want to switch varieties. But will it work in other ways?

Yes it will. I first noticed that dill and mustard re-seed easily. These plants produce copious quantities of seeds, as do carrots and many others.  Domestic mustard and carrots are descended from wild mustards and wild carrots. Obviously, nobody goes out in nature and carefully replants those seeds. All that happens is the seeds are spread around the ground by wind and then buried by snow and rain while temperatures are too low for them to sprout, but come spring at just the perfect time, they sprout.

Obviously, the germination percentage is much lower than when planted perfectly, but plants make up for this through sheer quantity of seeds.

As I mentioned, I save a lot of seeds — many times what I will actually need. Sometimes I use them for experiments.

In this case, after adding compost and other amendments to my squash bed, I carefully spread about 800 carrot seeds over a 4’x16′ space. This is exactly what nature would do. Some of those seeds will rot. Some will be eaten. The germination percentage will be absolutely abysmal. But many of them WILL make it through the winter and will sprout at the exact perfect time in spring. I may have to thin a little.

I am curious to see how this works. It worked well for tomatoes and we’ll soon know how well it works for carrots!

 

 

Monday Night, I Harvested Carrots!

I live in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, which is not exactly the warmest spot on earth. It’s not as bad as Minnesota, thank goodness, but it is far cooler than where I grew up in Virginia.

Yet, with no greenhouse,  snow forecast for today, and well past the first frost of the year, I was out in the garden with a flashlight harvesting carrots and salsify after Thanksgiving!

Too often, folks suffer from the misconception that you can only grow food in summer, when in reality this only applies to tender plants such as tomatoes and squash. Planned well, you can actually grow a great many crops all the way from earliest spring through late fall including:

  • Carrots, Parsnips, Salsify
  • Turnips, Beets, Chard
  • Potatoes (yes, potatoes!)
  • Onions

When you consider that you have a much longer growing season than is self-evident and you can actually grow and harvest even when temperatures have been dropping into the mid 20’s at night, you can use this fact to orchestrate the order in which you plant crops to make maximum use of space.

I explain how to do this in Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but the idea isn’t difficult.

Look at the packet of seeds for a frost-hardy crop. I’ll use cabbage as an example. Look at the number of days to maturity. For the cabbage I grow, that number is 65.

Now, that number — days to maturity — is assuming a spring or summer planting, and hence a lot of energy from the sun. So when planting for a fall harvest, you’ll need more time. Add two or three weeks to that number — so 21 days. That gives us 65+21 or 86 days between planting and harvest.

Cabbage can be directly seeded, but it works best from transplants. Usually they are started indoors six weeks before they are planted. (I include a table of this stuff in the book, but you can find that data on your seed packet as well.) So you should start your seeds indoors 6 weeks plus 86 days before your expected harvest, or 6×7 = 42 + 86 = 128 days.

But when is your expected harvest? For a hardy crop, you can harvest 6-7 weeks after the first autumn frost. In my area, the first autumn frost is usually around October 6. So if I add 7 weeks to that, I get November 24. So I should start my seeds for my fall cabbage crop 128 days before November 24 (July 19th), and put my transplants in the ground 86 days before November 24 (August 30th).

(If you don’t like counting backwards on a calendar, you can use this handy website.)

So … I have that entire patch of ground where I am planning to put my cabbage completely available for any other purpose up until August 30th! That means I have plenty of time to grow practically anything short of melons or long-season tomatoes. I like to alternate between plant families and between root and leaf/fruit crops, so I’ll grow my spring potatoes in that bed, harvest them completely, and then replant with cabbage.

People who haven’t tried it themselves sometimes think I exaggerate how much food I can grow in just a few hundred square feet. But the real key is planning — not just in terms of space, but in terms of time. I grew three crops where I grew cabbage this year: chard followed by potatoes followed by cabbage.

You can do it too!

Coping with Rampant Food Inflation

Official inflation numbers don’t take the costs of food and energy into account. But the cost of food is rising fast as the following table demonstrates:

Just LOOK at that!  The price of potatoes has quadrupled and the prices of many other things have doubled or tripled. Crazy!  No wonder people are feeling broke on their way out of the grocery store.

Last night I cooked three large buttercup squash in the oven, scraped the deliciously sweet cooked squash into containers, and put them in my freezer. Last week I baked about a bushel of potatoes and then vacuum sealed them in meal-sized packages, then stored them in the freezer as well.

It doesn’t matter to me how much potatoes or squash cost at the store. Ditto for eggs and a great many other things. It doesn’t matter because I grow them myself.

Potatoes and winter squash are two of the easiest things in the world to grow. I cover the specifics in Maximizing Your Mini-Farm but the long and short is I have even pulled off growing potatoes while living in a condo where we were restricted from growing edible plants.

Squash, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips and cabbage are very easy to grow even in the most space-restricted environments and will give an excellent caloric bang for your time-buck.

Due to the drought last summer, these prices are only going to go UP. Start planning for your mini-farm now because the return on your time investment is now at least double what it was four years ago!

Yes, Millipedes can be Pests

In general, millipedes are considered beneficial soil animals that help break down decaying organic matter. Outside of greenhouse environments, they just plain don’t cause crop damage that has warranted consideration. But when I harvested my rutabagas this year, I noticed dark tunnels running through many of them. This was not typical of wireworm damage, which tends to take chunks out of the surface. Rather, this was a black tunnel that went several inches into the rutabaga. After carefully — very carefully — dissecting a rutabaga and following a tunnel slowly with a very sharp knife, I unearthed the unlikely culprit.

This wee beastie was very small, much smaller than the typical millipedes I see in the garden. It was so small I couldn’t see any legs with my naked eye, but some antennae were evident. It’s behavior was also atypical of millipedes which usually curl up into a ball when disturbed. It acted more like a nematode in that it would hold the front half of its body up in the air and seem to be looking around.

So like any curious farmer, I put the beast under my microscope unharmed on special slides intended for observing small living creatures. There, the legs were abundantly evident: two pairs per segment. The head was blunt, and it lacked the poison injectors or jaws of a centipede. (It also moves too slowly for a centipede.) Though I have not yet identified the specific species, it is very clearly and unambiguously a very tiny millipede. As millipedes grow by adding segments, this species is distinct from the millipedes I usually find curled into a little spiral in the garden.

It also has rutabaga radar. When placed on a plastic plate several inches from a freshly cut piece of rutabaga, it first sticks its head up in the air and then heads for the rutabaga. Given about 15 minutes it burrows into the rutabaga and leaves behind a black trail into the flesh of the root.

This is a very interesting development.

In doing research, I have found that in Ontario, not very far North of here, millipedes have been busily damaging sweet potatoes and carrots, especially during times of drought. The three species they have identified are not the species that is damaging my rutabagas though. Incidentally, we have had a drought here all summer.

This is the first I have been aware of millipedes being a pest of root crops outside of greenhouses, but this is very definitely the case and not a fluke. As I find more information, I’ll keep you updated. I found no damage in carrots or parsnips in other beds, but have not yet harvested turnips — a closely related crop — and will be interested to see if I find the same problem there.

 

What are all those Instruments?

I received an email recently from a reader of my fermenting book who had noticed musical instruments in the background of one of my photos.

No, I’m not a musical instrument store, though it may look that way! I enjoy composing and playing music and have played various instruments since my father started teaching me when I was nine. Over time, when I haven’t been too busy with other things, I’ve augmented those skills.

I’m by no means a pro, but when a guy doesn’t enjoy TV very much and his mini farm only requires an hour a day, he needs something to do when he isn’t writing books — a hobby.

Here is a small composition I did recently while experimenting with separating instruments in a recording:

Bluestar, by Brett Markham

For folks interested in the nitty gritty details, everything was done on a Linux distribution called Ubuntu Studio.

Turn Your Property into an Income Producing Asset

Residential property is treated like a hotel. That is, it is primarily used as a place to sleep, eat and watch TV in the time spans between working. And if you look at the pricing and what the mortgage and property tax payments add up to, you’ll discover that the daily price of residential property is about the same as that for a hotel in the same neighborhood.

Think about that for a minute. You are paying as much as if you were living in a hotel, and you don’t even have daily fresh linen.

At some points in history, this could at least be justified by insanely appreciating prices that would allow you to flip property at a profit in no time. But for most of us, those days are over and depending on where you live about a third of homeowners owe more to the bank than the property is worth.

Though real estate can certainly be a good investment in some cases, again, right now, for a great many people it is a poor investment. At least, it shouldn’t be considered an investment. Rather, you are paying for a place to live, and paying about as much as you would for a hotel except without maid service. In this role, residential real estate is just a living expense. What to do?

It is easy to turn your residential property into an income producing asset by using your lawn to grow vegetables instead of grass. You’ll spend, on average, an hour a day — but that’s an hour you are taking away from TV rather than an hour you are taking away from paying work, so you aren’t losing anything.

What are the vegetables worth? Using MiniFarming methods, you are really growing organic food, so your apples-to-apples comparison should be to the prices of foods in the organic food aisle or at the health food store, rather than to mass-market commodities. My own experience, plus that of many others including experiments done by Mother Earth News, is that on average you can produce $5 worth of vegetables per square foot of raised bed annually.

If you plant blueberry bushes in place of ornamental (and toxic) yew trees and apples in place of maples while growing grapes and raspberries in place of ivy along fences, you will grow thousands of dollars worth of fruit every year. And don’t forget a couple of black walnuts or a blight-resistance American chestnut.

You can easily produce $5,000 worth of food with a few fruit plantings and 700 square feet of garden, and that is really a low-ball estimate.

Have you ever checked out the price of organic whole chickens? Oh yeah — as much as $20 each. I raise them in batches of 14. Two batches a year. That’s $560, minus the modest cost of feed. I keep them in a chicken tractor I built for less than $60.

How about organic eggs? $4 or $5 a dozen? While I am currently winding down my farm in hopes of moving, at peak I kept 20 laying hens that free ranged. I routinely collected seven dozen eggs ($35!) weekly. I’d resell them to coworkers at the day job and never had enough to meet demand. $25×52= $1820. I DID spend about $500 on supplemental feed, bedding and so forth. But still, that’s $1,200 a year. And that’s just in eggs. That doesn’t count the fact that their prolific droppings turn my compost pile into organic gardeners heaven.

So you have a house that you bought for $150,000. If you sold it and put that money in a CD, you’d get back maybe $2,750 per year for it. If it is mortgaged, you’re paying $1,250 month for it, and it is an expense. (And don’t forget all the utility bills.)

But adding it up, with a year round investment of an hour a day on average, maybe two hours if you are slow and enjoy it so you take your time, you can get back over $7,000 year by turning your property into something that PRODUCES something, instead of just a hotel. That’s like getting half your mortgage for free, and you don’t even pay taxes on it while still taking the mortgage interest deduction.

Turning your property into a MiniFarm is a financial winner.

Medium for Compost Organism Culture

A few days ago I was discussing my upcoming book on composting with a friend, and he asked a very worthwhile question: since you can’t actually see what is going on in a compost pile, how do you know?

The answer is that I have a laboratory and I have extensively cultured the organisms in compost and differentiated their populations by incubating at various temperatures and so forth. I can’t afford to equip a modern laboratory, but you may be surprised to discover that with just a few minor variations, the equipment and techniques of 100 years ago work just as well today and at trifling cost accessible to anyone.

For a very good introduction to all of the techniques necessary for sterile culture, separating organisms, and differentiating them through medium, incubation, growth habit, staining and more, you can refer to the free e-book on the Project Gutenberg website entitled The Elements of Bacteriological Technique. The information in this book is 100 years old and some of it is certainly out of date. So you should already have modern high school biology under your belt to correct errors.

Thankfully, with very little change, a lot of what is in that book is still in use and remains useful today. The materials used 100 years ago are still used today and can be purchased over the Internet. And, like I said, with a bit of creativity you can outfit a respectable and useful laboratory for hundreds of dollars rather than thousands or tens of thousands. A big bonus is that modern stuff is of higher quality due to improvements in manufacturing. Some of my gear is pretty non-standard. For example, my incubator is a drink cooler equipped with a Peltier junction and controlled via an Arduino. But bacteria don’t care how fancy your gear looks.

Anyway, to the nuts and bolts. My friend wanted to know what I use as a medium for growing bacteria from compost.

The medium for culturing bacteria should be as close as possible to the natural environment. What I do is pressure can compost tea made with distilled water in quart jars to keep it handy. I pressure can it for 30 minutes, more than assuring the death of all organisms, but retaining the other elemental constituents. When I am ready to make my medium, I use this sterile compost tea as a base, and incorporate:

  • 20 grams of agar
  • 10 grams of dextrose (I use the stuff from a home brewing store instead of the $pricey$ stuff from the lab company)
  • 500 mg of Ammonium Phosphate (Again, from the home brewing store)
  • 200 mg of Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salts from the grocery store)
  • 500 mg of Peptone (from the lab supply company)

There is a special trick to incorporating the agar. Agar is a seaweed product that will turn the medium into something like gelatin. Mix it into a slurry with one cup of the compost tea, then add the slurry into the rest of the medium.

After this, bring the whole mixture to a boil over a water bath while stirring. This will let the agar dissolve completely and sterilize it. I then filter it through several layers of cheesecloth while hot and use it in my Petri dishes.

This is what I use for examining aerobic compost organisms and facultative anaerobes.

But, as you can see, there is nothing here that can’t be done by anyone familiar with canning. Science is not mysterious!