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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 PST

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: Livestock

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

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I hear time and time again at the outset of each workshop, “I don’t know anything about working oxen.” And I say, “There is no more fun than being a beginner.” Myself and the staff get great pleasure in sharing our knowledge of working steers and oxen. For as long as there are those interested in working cattle, the men I mentioned early in this article will not be forgotten. I believe there will always be cattle worked on small farms and in the woods.

Chicken

The Best Chicken Pie Ever

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She has one more gift to give: Chicken Pie.

The Milk and Human Kindness Caring For The Pregnant Cow

The Milk and Human Kindness: Caring for the Pregnant Cow

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Good cheese comes from happy milk and happy milk comes from contented cows. So for goodness sake, for the sake of goodness in our farming ways we need to keep contentment, happiness and harmony as primary principles of animal husbandry. The practical manifestations of our love and appreciation are what make a small farm. Above and beyond the significant requirements of housing, feed and water is the care of your cow’s emotional life, provide for her own fulfillment. Let her raise her calf!

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

The Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association hosted their 50th Anniversary Plowing Match at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center in McMinnville, Oregon on April 9, 2016. Small Farmer’s Journal was lucky enough to attend and capture some of the action to share.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A Gathering of Comtois in France

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I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

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Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.

Littlefield Notes Making Your Horses Work For You

LittleField Notes: Making Your Horses Work For You Part 1

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The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses.

Ask A Teamster The Bit

Ask A Teamster: The Bit

I work at a farm that uses their team of Percherons to farm, give hayrides, spread manure, etc. One of the horses gets his tongue over the bit. I’ve been told he’s always done this since they had him. I have always thought: #1. You have very little control, and #2. It would hurt! The horse is very well behaved, does his work with his tongue waving in the air, and sometimes gets his tongue back in place, but at that point it’s too late. They use a snaffle bit. Any suggestions?

My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

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In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw.

Feeding Elk Winter Work for the Belgians

Feeding Elk: Winter Work for the Belgians

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Doug Strike of rural Sublette County is spending his second winter feeding wild elk in nearby Bondurant, Wyoming. Strike is supplementing his logging income as well as helping his team of Belgian draft horses to keep in shape for the coming season. From May to the end of November he uses his horses to skid logs out of the mountains of western Wyoming. I found the use of Doug’s beautiful Belgian team an exciting example of appropriate technology.

Oxen Experiences

Oxen Experiences

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Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

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Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

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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.

Changing of Seasons

LittleField Notes: Changing of Seasons

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We are blessed who are active participants in the life of soil and weather, crops and critters, living a life grounded in seasonal change. This talk of human connection to land and season is not just the rambling romantic musing of an agrarian ideologue. It is rather the result of participating in the deeply vital vocation that is farming and knowing its fruits first hand.

Cattle Handling Part 2 Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

Cattle Handling Part 2: Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

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Cattle are very intelligent, and are just as “trainable” as horses. Like horses, they “reason” differently than humans. Understanding the way cattle think and why they react to you the way they do can enable you handle them in ways that will help rather than hinder your purposes. If you can “think like a cow” you can more readily predict what cattle will do in various situations and be able to handle them with fewer problems.

How Big Should a Draft Horse Be

How Big Should A Draft Horse Be?

from issue:

As evidenced by our letters and the frequent comments of contributors to this magazine, the question of size in draft horses is a hot issue. I suppose we’d all like to think that it’s a contemporary subject, one which did not trouble people back when horses were the norm. The BREEDER’S GAZETTE gathered the opinions of the most respected Draft horsemen of the 1910’s on the subject of how big a draft horse should be and we’ve reprinted them here. As you can see the subject has provided controversy for a long time and I’m sure it will continue.

Littlefield Notes Making Your Horses Work For You Part 2

LittleField Notes: Making Your Horses Work For You Part 2

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Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.

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