Small Farmer's Journal

or Subscribe

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.

or Subscribe to read the rest of this article.

SmallFarmersJournal.com is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Farmrun - Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor is an educational farm on Shelter Island, whose mission is to cultivate, preserve, and share these lands, buildings, and stories — inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

Cultivating Questions: Alternative Tillage & Inter-Seeding Techniques

Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

by:
from issue:

It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

by:
from issue:

One weekend I attended a Biodynamic meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon, in the Row River Valley, just east of Cottage Grove. I always enjoy seeing other food growing operations, as this is such an infinitely broad subject, there is always much to learn from others’ experiences. At this farm, draft horses are used for much of the work.

Such a One Horse Outfit

Such a One Horse Outfit

by:
from issue:

One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

No Starving Children!

You’d never be able to harvest the broccoli or the hay or milk the cows or make the cheese if it were subject to government process. Not only are our industrial farms too big…

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

by:
from issue:

The agricultural system of the Old Believers has long been one of hand labor. Their homesteads (hozyastvas) were not intended for tractors or horses, with the possible exception of their larger potato fields. Traditionally the small peasant hozyastva has its roots in hand labor, and this has helped maintain the health of the land. Understanding the natural systems is easier when one’s hands are in the soil every day as opposed to seeing the land from the seat of a tractor.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

by:
from issue:

At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

by:
from issue:

I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

A Year of Contract Grazing

A Year of Contract Grazing

by:
from issue:

Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Amidst all of the possibility that is out there, all of the options and uncertainties, it helps to remember that there is also a strong community in the draft-farming world. What will serve us well within this great variety of farms and farmers is to keep in touch, to learn from one another’s good ideas and mistakes and to keep on farming with draft power.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 3

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3

Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.

Journal Guide