Small Farmer's Journal

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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

This material originally appeared in the Spring 1992 Small Farmer’s Journal

Copyright 2010 by the authors, Anne and Eric Nordell

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Like many growers, we raise our own plants so we can select varieties most suitable to our growing conditions and markets. Just as important is timeliness, that is, having starts ready in due season.

Along similar lines, we mix our own potting soil to match growing conditions in the fields. Plants started in a live medium seem to take off quickly when planted out in biologically active soils. To put it the other way around, we have tried to bring the concept of “feed the soil, not the plant” from the field into the greenhouse.

A more site specific reason has been to raise seedlings hardy enough for our unirrigated planting system. A compost-based potting mix helps us to grow the stocky plants with extensive root systems necessary to weather adverse conditions in the field.

It was not until we began to fine-tune manure management in the barn that we arrived at a way of making compost suitable for potting soil. So maybe a little compost history would be appropriate here.

Midwinter of ’89 we roughed together a chicken coop next to one of the composting pigpens in the barn (for details on this animal-powered system, see “Work Hogs and Horse Manure” in the Spring 1991 SFJ). We then filled the coop two and a half feet deep with the partially composted horse manure accumulated in the pigpen. The home laying flock took a genuine interest in this rich, rotted material, scratching and pecking away. Surprisingly enough, feed consumption dropped while egg production rose, the eggs developed the flavorful taste and firm texture associated with free range, and the hens seemed to appreciate warm ground under-claw during the winter months. At this point in the decomposition process the compost also seemed to prefer the lighter touch of the birds compared to the packing power of heavy hogs.

We encouraged the flock of 20 to shred and mix the compost by scattering shelled corn and sprouted oats. We did find it necessary to turn the materials by hand as the hens could only scratch six to eight inches deep. But digging a trench through the compost in the 9×9 foot coop was just a 5-10 minute job twice a week, easily absorbed into the routine of barn chores. Besides being a cheap way to make feed, this extra effort incorporated the chickens’ droppings into the compost, keeping the coop sweet smelling and moist.

According to the books, chicken manure is rich in calcium and phosphorus, two nutrients poorly represented in other manures. So apparently the hens helped to balance out the fertility supplied by the horses and the hogs. In addition, we provided the laying flock with a box of wood ashes tacked waist high in one corner of the coop. Not only did the dust-bath help to keep lice at bay, but when the birds flew out of the ash box they dusted the compost with a fine coat of readily available calcium, potash and trace minerals.

In two to three months the cooped up composts was already fine in texture and rich in color. At this point we layered in some soil, no more than one-half inch for every four inches of compost. Compared to trials without using soil, this addition seemed to help ripen the compost in the direction of humus, to keep the compost (and later the potting mix) more uniformly moist, and to re-inoculate the pile with beneficial bacteria possibly destroyed during the first heat cycles. (We like to use soil from a freshly plowed field of rye and hairy vetch where the good tilth and earthworm activity indicate an active and healthy soil life.) For the final round of heating and then curing, we shoveled the compost, now thoroughly mixed with soil by the hens, into a wooden bin built next to the coop in an unused corner of the barn.

Three advantages to making compost in the barn soon became clear: Under roof, there was no chance of losing nutrients due to leaching; weed seed could not blow in and infest the pile; and the moderated temperatures in the barn allowed for more biologically active months of the year. In fact, by the next winter the compost was mellow enough for use in a germinating mix.

More importantly to us, the resulting compost needed no further amending with fertilizers for strong, balanced plant growth. Because the nutrients had been completely digested and incorporated in this live composting process, we did not have to worry about uneven growth due to poor mixing or unexpected chemical/biological reactions as can sometimes happen when adding raw or soluble elements to a potting mix just before use.

We must admit that we may use larger cell sizes than would be affordable in a commercial nursery in order to provide enduring fertility from compost alone. For example, we grow lettuce in 72-cell pro-trays, and pot our peppers and tomatoes into 24’s. But we see the large plug size as an advantage, rather than a liability, when setting out plants in the field without irrigation. That is, we have been willing to sacrifice greenhouse space in an effort to drought-proof the farm. Despite four months of record hot, dry weather last year, we planted out over 800 lettuce starts every week from April through August. Although not every head reached market size, we lost virtually no plants either.

We have also learned there is a lot more to growing healthy plants than henpecked compost. First of all, finding the right blend of compost and peat moss to insure good drainage, moisture and aeration has been an ongoing trial-and-error process. We have settled on two basic mixes that so far have fared well under most conditions.

For a germinating mix, we combine two parts compost (sifted through a 3/8-inch screen), four parts peat moss, one part each of perlite and vermiculite. We also use this “lite” mix for lettuce seedlings to encourage root growth and discourage the root and stem rots that sometimes appear when the mix is made much heavier. On the other hand, we boost the percentage of sifted compost to six parts for potting on heavy feeders like tomatoes, peppers and coles.

Sunlight and heat seem to be critical ingredients for healthy seedling growth as well. In the cloudy, cool spring of ’90 we found removing the second layer of plastic glazing covering the greenhouse made all the difference in controlling damping off and spindly growth. From our limited experience, sacrificing insulation for light seems wise.

Besides, cool air temperatures seem to benefit most plants as long as the roots and soil are kept warm. The opposite, cold soil and warm air, we found, just about guaranteed weak, spindly growth. To get warmth where it was most needed, we buried a flue in a growing bench filled with gravel and stone. Burning a short, hot fire in the barrel stove attached to the flue each evening warmed the stones in the bench, which in turn, released gentle heat under the flats all night long. (We suspend foam insulation board over tomatoes, basil and peppers to hold heat around these sensitive plants on nights when the mercury threatens to drop below twenty.)

Not being engineers, this flue-in-a-bench design may not be the most efficient setup in the world, but does provide us with several advantages. Bottom heat creates the proper soil temperatures for a compost-based potting soil to come alive and release nutrients to the plants. Root growth is visibly more extensive and covered with fungal fuzz in warm soil as well. Because we fire the stove wide open, we can burn scrap lumber and soft woods cleanly. And we don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the stove as might be necessary if used in the conventional way for space heating.

If we have learned nothing else from mixing our own, it is that potting soils work best when integrated into the whole farm. For example, we needed a potting mix that would produce plants fit for our growing conditions and planting system. Compost suitable for such a potting mix came out of developing a conscientious manure management system in the barn. And we learned that a live potting soil is only as good as the greenhouse system.

Spotlight On: How-To & Plans

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

The Milk and Human Kindness Stanchion Floor

The Milk and Human Kindness: Plans for an Old Style Wooden Stanchion Floor

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from issue:

The basic needs that we are addressing here are as follows: To create a sunny, airy (not drafty), dry, convenient, accessible place to bring in our cow or cows, with or without calves, to be comfortably and easily secured for milking and other purposes such as vet checks, AI breeding, etc. where both you and your cow feel secure and content. A place that is functional, clean, warm and inviting in every way.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

English Sheaf Knots

English Sheaf Knots

Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.

Farm Drum #30 Blacksmithing we Pete Cecil Basic Techniques

Farm Drum #30: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Basic Techniques

Pete Cecil demonstrates basic blacksmithing techniques through crafting a hook in the forge.

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

How to Store Vegetables

Potatoes may be safely stored in bits on a well drained spot. Spread a layer of straw for the floor. Pile the potatoes in a long, rather than a round pile. Cover the pile with straw or hay a foot deep.

The Horsedrawn Mower Book

Removing the Wheels from a McCormick Deering No. 9 Mower

How to remove the wheels of a No. 9 McCormick Deering Mower, an excerpt from The Horsedrawn Mower Book.

Horseshoeing Part 2C

Horseshoeing Part 2C

The wear of the shoe is caused much less by the weight of the animal’s body than by the rubbing which takes place between the shoe and the earth whenever the foot is placed to the ground and lifted. The wear of the shoe which occurs when the foot is placed on the ground is termed “grounding wear,” and that which occurs while the foot is being lifted from the ground is termed “swinging-off wear.” When a horse travels normally, both kinds of wear are nearly alike, but are very distinct when the paces are abnormal, especially when there is faulty direction of the limbs.

Work Horse Handbook

Grooming Work Horses

The serviceability of the work horse may be increased or decreased according to the care which is bestowed upon him. If he is groomed in a perfunctory fashion his efficiency as an animal motor is lessened. On the other hand, if he is well groomed he is snappier and fresher in appearance and is constantly up on the bit.

The Milk and Human Kindness Making Swaledale

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Swaledale

by:
from issue:

Swaledale is one of the lost British cheeses, nearly extinct, along with other more obscure farmstead cheeses which were dropped because they were not suited for mechanical cutting – too crumbly. Too much loss. I dug the basic method out of Patrick Rance’s wonderful book of British cheeses and I’ve made it for years. I love it, everybody loves it, it’s a perfect cheese for rich Jersey milk, it takes very little time and trouble to make, it’s easy to age, delicious at one month, or a year.

Log Arch

Log Arch

by:
from issue:

The arch was built on a small trailer axle that I cut down to 3 feet wide and tacked back together. This was done so that I could keep the wheels parallel. I cut the middle out after construction was complete. I used heavy wall pipe from my scrounge pile for the various frame parts. It is topped off with an angle iron bar for added strength and to provide a mount for the winch and some slots for extra chains.

Sack Sewing with Wayne Ryan

Sack Sewing with Wayne Ryan

by:
from issue:

Watching Wayne’s sure hands it was easy for me to forget that this is a 91 year old man. There was strength, economy, elegance and thrift in his every stroke.

Horse Powered Snow Scoop

Horse Powered Snow Scoop

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from issue:

The scoop has two steel sides about 5 feet apart sitting on steel runners made out of heavy 2 X 2 angle iron, there is a blade that is lowered and raised by use of a foot release which allows the weight of the blade to lower it and then lock in the down position and the forward motion of the horses to raise it and lock it in the up position. This is accomplished by a clever pivoting action where the tongue attaches to the snow scoop.

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

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from issue:

Yogurt making is the perfect introduction into the world of cultured dairy products and cheese-making. You are handling milk properly, becoming proficient at sanitizing pots and utensils, and learning the principles of culturing milk. Doing these things regularly, perfecting your methods, sets you up for cheese-making very well. Cheese-making involves the addition of a few more steps beyond the culturing.

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

Fencing for Horses

Fencing for Horses

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from issue:

The first wire we tried was a small gauge steel wire which was not terribly satisfactory with horses. Half the time they wouldn’t see it and would charge on through. And the other half of the time they would remember getting shocked by something they hadn’t seen there and would refuse to come through when we were standing there with gate wide open. We realized that visibility was an important consideration when working with horses.

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

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from issue:

Fabricating steel rings is a common task in my small farm blacksmith shop. They are often used on tie-rings for my customer’s barns, chain latches on gates, neck yoke rings, etc. It’s simple enough to create a ring over the horn of the anvil or with the use of a bending fork, however, if you want to create multiple rings of the same diameter it’s worthwhile to build a hardy bending jig.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT