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No-Till Growing: Vegetable Production

Robust spring cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm.

Over the last 20-plus years of vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils, and going no-till has been part of that journey.

About 3 acres of land is in vegetables, with half in year-round vegetable production and the other half cover cropped through the winter months.

The crop rotations are very close, with yields very high, so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. To this end, soil amendments, fertilizers, inoculants and compost have been carefully selected and applied over the years.

Under this intensity of production, tillage was previously utilized to an excessive degree. This left the soil with a soil structure that was lacking in aggregation, tended toward surface crusting and with a plow pan always in need of mechanical breaking. The loosened soil of the tillage layer dried excessively in summer, leading to irrigation needs, and the soils’ air/water balance was constantly in jeopardy. Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

The Best Worm-Friendly Worm Bin for Composting

Worms harvested from a DIY worm bin

Continuous-flow worm bins makes harvesting easy on you and the worms.

Composting with worms produces a consistently superior product called vermicompost, which contains high counts of beneficial soil micro-organisms. Harvesting the finished vermicompost from most worm bins presents a problem, though: one either stops feeding a significant part of the bin to take it out of production, encouraging the worms to vacate the area to be harvested, or the worms have to be physically separated from the finished compost.

The Continuous-Flow Worm Bin

Continuous-flow worm bins are designed to provide a continuous output of finished vermicompost without disturbing the worms or taking any part of the bin out of production. This design makes it much easier to harvest the finished compost. Most continuous-flow designs have a winch-powered knife that cuts a slice of finished compost from the bottom of the bin about 2’ above the ground.

Composting: Join the Revolution

The so-called brandling or humus worm thrives in litter. They enjoy great popularity among a number of experimentally inclined gardeners. What is so special about these small worms?

My theory is that in worm composting or vermicomposting (Greek vermi: worm), we have something completely new that has little in common with conventional composting, and most importantly is superior to any previous method. The final product, worm castings, which is the term for worm excrement, is not comparable to other types of compost. It represents a new level of quality.

At this point, I want to quote the well-known words of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl: “The crucial thing is what comes out at the end.” This applies to humus worms in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. This “new” method is able to meet the modern demands of nature, environmental, and climate protection much better than any previous approach.

There is an ever-increasing discrepancy between the waste of natural power and resources in conventional composting methods (unavoidable losses in the forms of gases and liquids during hot composting) and the growing need to protect nature and the environment (through sustainable development to curb global warming). A solution is desperately needed. Composting is a part of the battle of opinions between humus management and ecological gardening and farming on the one side and Justus von Liebig’s so-called mineral theory, which serves as the foundation of the chemical industry and conventional agriculture, on the other side. The remainder of this book shall demonstrate the superiority of the former in detail.

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Homemade Fertilizers

With the economy and farm finance more and more problematic, interest is growing in running farms with fewer, more accurate and less expensive inputs and homemade fertilizers can help cut costs and keep fertility on the farm.

homemade fertilizer

Vermiwash made in a small biodynamic apple orchard in the
Himalayan foothills of Uttaranchal in sight of Nanda Devi, India’s second highest
mountain.

Formerly we’ve overdosed with a plethora of harsh fertilizers — especially nitrogen. As a result we’ve burned up the better part of our soil carbon, and this has reduced our rainfall.

By burning off carbon, we have created droughts even as ocean warming has sent more evaporation into the atmosphere. We have ignored that few things have more affinity for hydrogen than carbon, and if we want rain to adhere to and permeate our soils we need to build soil carbon.

We thought salt fertilizers were cheap, and the stunning results encouraged us to wish away any hidden costs, no matter that earthworms disappeared simultaneously with the food chain that supported them. Our soils got hard and sticky as magnesium stayed behind while nitrates leached, carrying away silicon, calcium and trace minerals. The soil fused when wet, shed water when it rained, and we continued to get less for more.

As if this wasn’t enough, the mind-set we were sold was get big or get out. As our net margins dried up and our future prospects evaporated, our water dried up and our land became exhausted. Continue Reading →

Campus Composting

In 2009, with my retirement from Ohio University looming, I didn’t think my personal involvement in the construction and start-up of a class 2 campus composting facility would develop into such a large operation. Class 2 compost (according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency) consists of yard, agriculture, animal, or food waste, plus a bulking agent.

To get this project underway, thousands of yards of dirt on the campus’s periphery had to be moved to prepare the site and many yards of concrete were poured to construct the base of a metal pole barn, which would eventually house the composting machine.

Hauled by truck from Ottawa, Canada, the enormous composting machine was unloaded by crane and placed on the concrete pad.

The vertical posts were installed and metal siding attached. For power, electricity was connected and the solar array installed. Today, the Ohio University Composting facility also boasts a solar thermal system and waste oil heaters that use leftover oil from the university’s facilities operations. Skylights provide indirect lighting. The entire facility is self-sustainable. With a 10 kilowatt-per-hour built in 2009 and a 31.1 kilowatt-per-hour system added in 2012, the solar array produces more energy than is used in the operation.

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