vermicomposting (composting with worms) diy

Do you juice a lot? Drink coffee? Use a lot of vegetables and fruits? Where does your “waste” go? If you’re in some states, you can throw that stuff in your green (yard waste) bin and save it from going to the landfill. Vermicomposting is a way to use that “waste” which call a resource, at home. This is especially useful in areas with no yard waste bins. I see a lot online about people juicing and lining their pulp trays with plastic bags then throwing it out.

Red wriggler worms (Eisenia fetida) work great at breaking down fruits, vegetables, juice remnants, coffee grounds, and more. These worms are extremely efficient and relatively fast at breaking down these fruit cores and lettuce ends to a very rich nutrient compost for your garden. You can sometimes find  these red wriggler worms at bait shops, online, and soon through me! You can farm these worms at home with a rubbermaid container, a few pieces old wood constructed into a box, a five gallon container, a purchased worm farm kit, etc.. I find the more wide and shallow the structure, the better the environment for the worms. These worms generally live in the top 12″ of the soil while night crawlers can go much deeper into the ground. These bins for the worms must be aerated. At the very least, you want drainage holes on the bottom and a loose fitting lid for the top. Worms need oxygen too!

Here is a list of what you’ll need:

  • Newspaper
  • Sticks
  • A box for your worms
  • Worms!
  • Some soil
  • And some leftover food waste (no meat or oils)

Step 1-
Make sure your box is well ventilated. In my case, I drilled hole on the bottom and sides of the rubbermaid container with a 5/16″ drill bit.

diy worm compost vermicompost bin tub

Step 2-
Layer sticks in a crossing pattern. This will help the bin drain.

aeration worm bin vermicompost sticks twigs

Step 3-
Tear newspaper length wise and lay that over the sticks.

newspaper bedding worm bin compost vermicompost

Step 4-
Put an inch of soil in the box over the newspaper.

Step 5-
Lay worms on top of the soil.

Step 6-
Chop of the food waste into small pieces and lay on top. Tip: Don’t overload the bin with food scraps at first. They take a while to get going and giving them too much food may kill them and make your bin stinky! They generally take a month to get used to their new home.

Step 7-
Shred more newspaper length wise and lay on top.

Step 8-
Moisten the newspaper and attach the lid. You do not want an airtight lid.

Tips:

  • The worms don’t want to be soaking wet but they despise being dry. Think of a wrung out sponge!
  • You can replace the newspaper with leaves too. Make sure not to use conifer (redwood, pine, etc.) leaves because worms do not digest those. Those leaves and needles require fungi to break them down.
  • Do you juice a lot? That pulp is excellent worm food, you’ve done have the work for them by grinding it up like that.

I will be selling worms in about two months, ready for spring time!

when is the best time to purchase and plant fruit trees on the west coast?

Gardeners often mistake spring and summer for the best time to plant fruit trees. But, deciduous fruit trees are often better purchased and planted during the winter months when they lie dormant. Part of the reason this is true is because the fruit tree doesn’t go through as much shock when being planted. It is not actively growing therefore the growth is not being disturbed. Also, nurseries often have a better selection and broad range of varieties that you may have thought never existed. The trees range in age but most are between 2-3 years old. That fruit tree that you buy in a pot in spring and summer is sometimes the same tree you could have purchased for half the price in winter because wholesale nurseries will often plant them in pots to sell them for a higher price later on.

There are a few things I look at when selecting a tree. First is the graft, often they are not completely callused over but there shouldn’t be any space between the rootstock and the grafted variety. Second, make sure there are no gashes, stripped bark, or oozing sap. Oozing sap is usually a sign that a canker is developing which can result in the whole tree dying. I see cankers mostly in apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines. Nurseries check for cankers but sometimes a few will be missed.  If you’re looking to grow a smaller tree, try to select one with lower branches. Sometimes, this isn’t possible and the tree will have to be cutback without any branches being underneath the cut. Don’t worry, those dormant buds should break underneath the cut and you can select your main branches from the shoots that appear.

Many people have small backyards and want smaller trees so they can have a range of fruit. Often, I get asked at the nursery for miniature or dwarf trees. From my experience, the root system is sometimes dwarfed as well, the tree is a little more finicky (resulting in dropped fruit) and the quality isn’t always there. I would much rather keep a semi-dwarf smaller by pruning and making a low initial cut when planting. Farmers sometimes use the knee rule, which means cutting the tree down to knee level. This can be done with smaller diameter trees but with larger diameter trees, I would make the cut higher than knee high.

Another option to have more varieties in a smaller area is to select multi-graft fruit trees. These trees are grafted with sometimes up six different varieties. One fruit tree that is commonly referred to as ‘stone fruit salad’ contains a peach, nectarine, plum, and apricot all on one tree while others will contain 4 varieties of one type of fruit. You can also try planting multiple trees on three-foot centers. This would look like a triangle when planted, one tree on each corner of the triangle.

Make sure you’re selecting fruit varieties that will do well in your area. Ask a nursery person if you’re confused about what ones will perform best in your location. Keep an eye out for chill hours; chill hours are the amount of hours below 45 degrees needed for optimal production. There are maps and charts online (here is one by UC Davis) that will give you an idea for how many chill hours you get in your area. If you’re in a low-lying area, you may get more chill hours than your neighbor who is up on a ridge. The chill hours don’t necessarily need to be reached to produce fruit but you will get much better production if the chill hour requirement is met.

Last but not least, when planting a bareroot tree, it is better to error on planting the tree too high than too low.  The tree will naturally pull itself down by a process called centrifugal force. If the centrifugal force is not enough, you can always add soil to cover the visible roots. Where as, if you plant a tree too low, you will make the tree vulnerable too crown rot and it will need to be completely excavated, often resulting in damaging the root system.

persimmonAfter the tree is planted, side dress with a good amount of rich compost. Do this several times during the year as the compost breaks down. In addition to adding compost, you can put a nice layer of different size wood chips to help conserve moisture and provide a slow release of nutrients to the tree.

Remember, as long as you follow a few rules, shopping for fruit trees in the winter will save you money, you’ll have a bigger selection to choose from, and the trees will be happier in the long run. Happy New Year everyone!

making an infused oil

infused oils small shot

My last post was about making a basic tincture. This post will address how to make an infused oil. When I make an infused oil, I use the folk method. I don’t measure anything. All I do is dry the plant material and cover with whatever oil I choose. You can weigh your herbs to be more precise about how much herb is in solution with the oil. When weighing the herb, I usually do a 1:3 ratio. 1 part plant material, 3 parts oil.

Different oils are better for products that will be applied to the face like almond and sunflower oil (lighter oils). Use these lighter oils especially when dealing with eczema or acne.  If applying to your lips or on other body parts, organic extra virgin olive oil works great and is not very expensive. You can use the oil directly or you can add beeswax to make a salve. The oil can also be used to make a cream which I will cover in a later post.

Here’s some of the plants I’ve used in oils: Calendula flowers, plantain leaf, comfrey root/leaves, cayenne, arnica, horse-chestnut, st. johns wort.

Basic steps to making an infused oil:

  1. Dry plant material (because if you don’t, the water will most likely spoil the oil)

  2. Put plant material in an airtight jar and cover with the oil of your choice.

  3. Either use a double broiler and heat the oil for a few hours. For most plants, I choose to keep in a warm place, out of direct sunlight. Sometimes when using the double broiler, you can cook the herbs causing a not so pleasant smell and the medicinal properties are diminished. You can also put the jar out in the sun but make sure to cover with a brown paper bag.

  4. After two weeks, strain the oil. I use a metal strainer instead of muslin because less oil is lost.  I do end up with some plant debris but that doesn’t bother me. The finer the strainer, the less plant material you’ll have in the oil.

basic tincture using holy basil

Holy Basil aka Tulsi (Ocimium sanctum) is an easy to grow summer annual here in Northern California. Start by seeding the a few plants in the spring. Then by mid summer there will be plenty to harvest. I love the tea made from Tulsi but sometimes I find it nice to have it in a ‘ready to use’ form where tea isn’t an option. That’s where tinctures come into the picture.holybasilgarden

When making a fresh plant tincture, you want to use as close to 100% alcohol as possible to prevent the final product from spoiling. Fresh plant contains a lot of moisture and if the their isn’t enough alcohol (roughly 25%) in the final product, the medicine will not last. If you don’t have access to that high strength of alcohol, dry the plant and use any vodka (40% alcohol) to cover the herbs. How much alcohol do you add? With fresh plant, it’s what herbalist call a 1:2 (1 part plant material, 2 parts alcohol). With dry plant material, I would recommend a 1:4 or 1:5. The alcohol and plant material should be packed into an airtight jar and put in a dark place for two weeks. Remember to shake the jar once a day. At the end of the two weeks, strain through muslin and store in either a jar or dropper bottles.

FYI: Methow Valley Herbs has a great page about the properties, history, and use of this plant. You can view their website here.

Mulch

Mulch? What is it? Why use it? How to use it?

By Christopher Harrod

With the rise of the suburban landscapes, there has been an increased focus on manicured landscaping. When leaves fall on the ground or lawn, they are raked, bagged, and sent to some another place. These leaves would naturally provide the soil with what would be considered “organic mulch,” (I’ll explain later).  Mulches like leaves help reduce evaporation, increase organic matter in the soil, and improve drainage. In our Mediterranean climate where we have no rain in the summer, mulch should be in wide use, helping conserve our water.

Why use mulch? First of all, it’s putting money back into your pocket by saving you on your water bill. It also provides organic matter that eventually breaks down to humus, which provides nutrients and stimulates biological activity. Also, the organic matter improves soil drainage in clay soils and increases water-holding capacity in sandy soils. Mulches also help reduce weeds by smothering and blocking sunlight to seeds. They also make it a whole lot easier to pull weeds when you do have them because the soil is nice and loose.

What are the different types of mulches? They are mainly divided into three categories: organic, inorganic, and living. Organic mulches would include wood chips, straw, newspaper, etc. Inorganic mulches would include rocks like river stones, sand or lava rocks. Living mulches would be plants, mostly plants that spread and form a dense cover above the soil. A few plants that I recommend include comfrey, thyme, and low growing California natives such as Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) or California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.). California Lilac and Manzanita are the most drought and deer resistant. While, comfrey (high in potassium) can be cut multiple times a season for nutrient rich mulch.

Wood chips as an organic mulch
Wood chips as an organic mulch

There are lots of choices when it comes to applying mulch in your yard. How do you choose one for your landscape? The organic and living mulches provide the most benefits. The inorganic mulches do not provide organic matter but are great when used with succulents, cacti and other seaside and desert plants. Straw is great for vegetable gardens, because it breaks down relatively fast. For orchards, you may want to go with wood chips cut into different sizes that will provide weed control for a longer period. Pine needles and oak leaves work great for acid loving plants. There are many resources online that are easy to access that can provide more information on choosing your mulch.

There are certain guidelines you want to follow when applying mulch to your landscape. First of all, it’s important not to cover the crown of the plant because this can cause moisture to build up around the trunk, which will result in crown rot. Horticulturalists have different opinions on how much mulch should be applied. Through my experience and research, I believe a couple inches or less is all you need in most situations. If mulching summer vegetables, wait until mid-spring because you want the soil to be warm. Also, be sure to water the mulch after you apply because sometimes it can be very dry, acting as a barrier to water.

Finding materials for mulch in Sonoma County is easy, local soil yards like Sonoma Compost will usually have a few options to choose from. Also, at local nurseries, you can find bagged mulch. Wood chips are sometimes offered for free on sites such as Craigslist and Freecycle. The easiest option would be to let the leaves and branches from your own plants decompose on site. That method doesn’t require you to get in your car or pull out your rake on your day off.

Useful Links:

Benefits of Mulch Pamphlet (PDF)

University of Illinois Extension (Great description list of mulches)

Guide on ground cover Ceanothus

Creating a wildflower garden

   

Habitat for native wildlife is diminishing across Sonoma County with development and conversion of wild lands into subdivisions, farms and vineyards. As wild areas continue to be fragmented, populations of wildflowers shrink, contributing to the loss of our native plants, pollinators, insects and birds. In urban areas, people can play a role in reducing the impact of development by planting and sowing wildflower strips.

Planting wildflowers alongside crops has become a renewed interest as a pest control method among organic and conventional farmers by attracting beneficial wildlife. Predatory insects (insects that eat other insects) feed off the nectar and pollen provided by the wildflowers.

This helps control outbreaks of certain pests such as aphids. Many farmers have explained that after planting these wildflower strips, also called “hedgerows,” they see a reduction in crop damage within the first few years. Hedgerows aren’t only valuable to farmers but urban dwellers as well.

By planting a diversity of native wildflowers, you can have continuous blooms through spring and into fall. This provides a constant nectar and seed source for bees, birds and insects. Additionally, the seeds of these wildflowers can spread throughout the county to start other local native wildflower populations. Hedgerows can also provide shelter for birds and create over-wintering sites (locations for beneficial insects to take cover from our winter climate).

You might be wondering how to plant your own wildflower garden. There are more than a few ways to grow wildflowers at home. Two common methods used to start a wildflower garden are by container planting or by using seeds, my favorite method.

Although plants may be the same species, wildflowers from outside your area may have different genetics than your local population. When possible, use plants and seeds that are local varieties.

These are often better adapted to your area and less likely to contaminate the local gene pool. Furthermore, never dig up wild plants for your own garden. Transplanting wild plants is against the law on most public land.

When preparing an area to be planted, it is important to make sure the area is free of weeds. If possible, pull weeds and water the area; allow another round of weeds to emerge again, pull and repeat if necessary. This will help diminish the weed seed bank that lies in the soil and allow for better success and weed control in the long run.

Most California wildflowers are best seeded in the fall. If you can’t wait for next fall, I have seen some people successfully sow seeds in winter and early spring.

By spring and summer, the flowers should be in full bloom. Certain wildflowers are sold in containers at nurseries, and those can generally be planted throughout the year.

Be mindful that some wildflowers do not flourish in pots and fare better by direct seeding (sown where they will permanently grow).

Planting native wildflowers has many benefits, including the enjoyment you’ll receive from watching the new visitors in your garden.

Whether you’re removing lawn or covering a bare spot in your yard, wildflowers are a great way to provide beauty while sustaining biodiversity, using less water and reducing pesticide use.

Helpful websites are California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org) and

Xerces Society (www.xerces.org).

This article was orginally published in The Community Voice on April 5th, 2013.

Creating wildflower garden can help with pest control

 
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By Christopher Harrod  April 5, 2013 12:00 am

Habitat for native wildlife is diminishing across Sonoma County with development and conversion of wild lands into subdivisions, farms and vineyards. As wild areas continue to be fragmented, populations of wildflowers shrink, contributing to the loss of our native plants, pollinators, insects and birds. In urban areas, people can play a role in reducing the impact of development by planting and sowing wildflower strips.

Planting wildflowers alongside crops has become a renewed interest as a pest control method among organic and conventional farmers by attracting beneficial wildlife. Predatory insects (insects that eat other insects) feed off the nectar and pollen provided by the wildflowers.

This helps control outbreaks of certain pests such as aphids. Many farmers have explained that after planting these wildflower strips, also called “hedgerows,” they see a reduction in crop damage within the first few years. Hedgerows aren’t only valuable to farmers but urban dwellers as well.

By planting a diversity of native wildflowers, you can have continuous blooms through spring and into fall. This provides a constant nectar and seed source for bees, birds and insects. Additionally, the seeds of these wildflowers can spread throughout the county to start other local native wildflower populations. Hedgerows can also provide shelter for birds and create over-wintering sites (locations for beneficial insects to take cover from our winter climate).

You might be wondering how to plant your own wildflower garden. There are more than a few ways to grow wildflowers at home. Two common methods used to start a wildflower garden are by container planting or by using seeds, my favorite method.

Although plants may be the same species, wildflowers from outside your area may have different genetics than your local population. When possible, use plants and seeds that are local varieties.

These are often better adapted to your area and less likely to contaminate the local gene pool. Furthermore, never dig up wild plants for your own garden. Transplanting wild plants is against the law on most public land.

When preparing an area to be planted, it is important to make sure the area is free of weeds. If possible, pull weeds and water the area; allow another round of weeds to emerge again, pull and repeat if necessary. This will help diminish the weed seed bank that lies in the soil and allow for better success and weed control in the long run.

Most California wildflowers are best seeded in the fall. If you can’t wait for next fall, I have seen some people successfully sow seeds in winter and early spring.

By spring and summer, the flowers should be in full bloom. Certain wildflowers are sold in containers at nurseries, and those can generally be planted throughout the year.

Be mindful that some wildflowers do not flourish in pots and fare better by direct seeding (sown where they will permanently grow).

Planting native wildflowers has many benefits, including the enjoyment you’ll receive from watching new visitors in your garden.

Whether you’re removing lawn or covering a bare spot in your yard, wildflowers are a great way to provide beauty while sustaining biodiversity, using less water and reducing pesticide use.

Helpful websites are California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org) and

Xerces Society (www.xerces.org).

This article was orginally published in The Community Voice on April 5th, 2013.

http://thecommunityvoice.com/article.php?id=6269

Preparing medicinal mushroom extracts (a basic guide)

Turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) growing on a dead log.
Turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) growing on a dead log.

Mushrooms are not only a delicious food but have also been used for centuries for medicine. Reishi (Ganoderma l.), Turkey Tail (Trametes v.), and Cordcyceps are some of the most commonly used mushrooms for medicinal purposes. Most of the mushrooms used have anti-cancer, anti-tumor, and immune boosting properties. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done about the use of mushrooms for medicine. Although, there is some solid research being done, a lot of the information until now has been anecdotal.

One of the main molecules to have medicinal properties are polysaccharides. These polysaccharides must be extracted through hot water. Another molecule group that is beneficial are triterpenes and these must be extracted through alcohol. This means that polysaccharides are water-soluble (able to be extracted by water) and the triterpenes are alcohol-soluble (able to be extracted by alcohol).

When preparing the extract, please make sure to work in a clean environment and use clean supplies. The extract at the end of the procedure should not contain less than 20% alcohol and no more than 40%.

Ingredients:

Any medicinal mushroom

Water

Alcohol

Muslin

Airtight Jar

For the hot water extraction:

Break apart mushrooms if possible.

Cover mushrooms with water.

Bring water to a light simmer.

Simmer for 2-3 hours. (You can also use a crock pot set on low overnight).

Strain mushrooms, set water aside and transfer the mushrooms into a separate bowl.

For alcohol extraction:

Take strained mushrooms and add them to at least 40% alcohol.

For every 1 part of mushrooms, add 4-5 parts alcohol.

Keep this concoction in an airtight container in a dark cool place for at least two weeks.

Remember to shake the solution everyday.

After two weeks, strain the mixture through muslin or cheesecloth.

Combine this liquid with your hot water concoction.

If using 40% alcohol, add equal amounts of the water extraction and alcohol (1 part water to 1 part alcohol).

This will make the final tincture contain 20% alcohol.

Dosage

Three dropper fulls (2-3x a day)

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment or email me.

Related links:

Research paper on medicinal mushrooms

NAMA (North American Mycological Association) article on medicinal mushrooms

time for picking

Western Giant Puffball (Calvatia booniana) found in Telluride, CO.
Western Giant Puffball (Calvatia booniana) found in Telluride, CO.

Leaves are falling
from nearby maples
as bay nuts pound
the forest floor.
I invite you outside
While the ground is still wet,
An enjoyable practice,
adds kick to your step.
Into the forest
where mushrooms began
too make their journey.
From the bottomless pen.

From underneath the soil.
They push and toil,
They knew they could
Through leaves and wood.
Five inches high,
And side to side.
With their chin up
And shoulders spread wide
Their spores start dropping
From beginning to stopping.
Yellow and slimy
small and brown
a community of mycelium
that forms a large town.

Dormant through summer
now refreshed by the rains.
The forest floor
Will never be the same.
It’s time for picking.
step outside
beautiful fungi
have arrived!

Reduce nutrient runoff by knowing your soil

As the weather warms in the spring, a mix of perennial and annual plants in the garden begin to bloom, providing an array of colors contrasting with the gray of winter. 

Grape vines break out of dormancy, and gardeners walk in limbo, deciding when to plant their first tomatoes to avoid Sonoma County’s late spring frosts. This is also a time when most gardeners and farmers enrich the soil by applying fertilizers and compost. At the farm or at home, fertilizer can sometimes be essential but when applied excessively, it can cause nutrient runoff, damaging water quality and habitat. There are ways to avoid these environmental problems by taking responsible actions to promote soil health.

Applying too much fertilizer may cause nutrients to leach through the soil before the plant has a chance to use them. When this happens, the water-soluble nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphates get deposited into our water supply. This causes a process called eutrophication.

The higher nutrient levels in streams cause algae (that green stuff on the top of the water) to grow excessively. As this algae dies and decomposes (breaks down), it depletes the water of oxygen, causing the death of other organisms that can’t survive on the low levels of oxygen. Eutrophication is a natural process but is often exaggerated by human influence.

For example, in the Florida Gulf, where the Mississippi River drains, there is commonly a large dead zone that has been growing in size, often in correlation with the use of chemical fertilizers. 

Both humans and animals can be affected by high nitrogen in our water supply, causing birth defects and other health problems. There are ways to avoid polluting our waterways while providing an adequate amount of nutrients to plants at home and at the farm. The techniques include soil testing, adding compost, using plant-based fertilizers when needed and planting native trees and shrubs.

Testing your soil, whether you’re a home gardener or farmer, is a great idea. Why? It can provide a detailed analysis of what nutrient levels your soil contains. 

It will allow you to make better decisions about when to fertilize, what fertilizer to use and how much. Testing will help reduce runoff and your expenses on unneeded products.

In most gardens, fertilizer may not be necessary. The addition of compost and mulch will provide the plants with enough nutrients to thrive. Compost does its job by adding important nutrients and organic matter, while the mulch will help conserve moisture and eventually turn into compost. Some heavy feeding plants require large amounts of nutrients to keep production high. Tomatoes and peppers are heavy feeders and may need fertilizer added to the beds each year.

There are many choices when it comes to fertilizer. Walking through most garden centers, you’ll often see fertilizers that are petroleum based, which take more energy to produce and are more prone to leaching into our water systems. There are some alternatives to these fertilizers such as cover crops, manures and plant based fertilizers, which often break down at a slower speed. These ‘organic’ soil amendments break down slowly to provide a gradual release of nutrients to the plants. These fertilizers have a lesser chance of getting into our water. 

For our water to be cleaner and our energy used more efficiently, farms and gardeners should test their soils, rely less on petroleum-based fertilizers, add compost and mulch, and incorporate cover crops and plant and animal-based fertilizers when needed. 

These healthy and more sustainable practices will allow our gardens and farms to thrive while having less negative impacts on soils, wildlife, and local and global water ecology.

This article was originally published in the Community Voice on March 8th, 2013.

A link to the original article: http://www.thecommunityvoice.com/article.php?id=6148