Invasive Plant Species

Quick plug for vigorous action on invasive species wherever you see them in Missouri! Here on the farm we are really concerned about the aggressiveness of Russian olives and honey locust, both spread by birds and suckers, and less about the bush honeysuckles which are clearly an enormous problem in the St Louis urban area.

We also pull a lot of sericea and, this year, knapweed and ragweed, but my personal least-favored plant is horse nettle, which has thorns right down to the soil — even on the underside of its leaves!

Last weekend I was shocked, astounded and horrified at the relative length of a locust taproot compared to the height of the seedling. A 3 ft locust had sprouted in the middle of a bed of cover crops, and its main taproot was thicker than the seedling trunk even where it broke two beds away.

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So pull these fast-growing non-native plants where you see them and plant something local in their place.

Soil Blocks & Yarrow Planting

This Fall we’ll be planting several hundred yarrow seedlings into the field & hoop house so they (hopefully) can start vigorously in the Spring. I think soil blocks are becoming more common among regenerative vegetable farmers, and much of the credit goes to Elliot Coleman and Johnny’s Seeds for testing and popularizing the approach.

Pros:

  • full stop to use disposable plastic cell trays

  • bottom watering reduces damping off

  • roots stop at edge of blocks, reducing transplant stress

Cons:

  • dealing with small blocks is a learned skill

  • transport can be difficult

A solid overview of the system is available here. I plan to upsize these 3/4” seedlings to 2” blocks and then put in the field before the end of September, then cover with a breathable fabric before the first frost.

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Soil block mix: garden soil, peat, lime, compost, perlite…

The basic recipe that I use came from here. Elliot Coleman’s recipe uses chicken manure, and the mix is endlessly mutable. I add both Azomite for minerals and mycorrhizal fungi.

So far we have 480 yarrow blocks, and today I’ll add about the same again. With a 3-5 day germination period I think I still have time to get more into the field.

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Summer Compost Progress

Earlier this week we advanced the summer season’s compost pile to the next phase of its decomposition, a really exciting milestone in its progress towards finished compost — our goal is to share 100% of the summer compost with our composting community members and we’re eager to bag it!

The aerobic composting uses three bins (and a separate worm house, more to follow) and the biggest development was moving 75% of pile 1 to the second bin. This was a chance to re-mix, fully aerate, and adjust the moisture.

Photos showing construction of bin 2:

I moved the pile to bin 2 on Monday and yesterday the temperature was still ~130 (see photo above), so it’s a very active, hot pile. I’ll continue to turn and re-mix this pile without adding any new material until the core temperature drops near ambient, then I’ll sieve the mixture and move to a third bin to cure.

Meanwhile, we’re collecting between 1/4 and 1/3 ton of residential food waste each week and adding chipped wood and water to form our pile. We also add Azomite mineral dust to our pile because we believe that re-mineralization of soil is essential for plant health.

Food layer with dusting of Azomite

One amazing aspect of composting is watching the pile of waste food & wood heat and shrink. On average, industry studies show that piles of food waste will lose around 25% of initial mass (and decreases in mass of up to 35% have been seen) while reductions in volume are routinely between 40-50%. The small (but growing!) percentage we feed to worms is substantially transformed into new worms with very few pounds of castings harvested.

I’ll keep posting photos and temperature stats on the two bins.

Fall Bed Prep

This weekend we turned three of the beds over to fall cover crops. Why? To build soil health and ensure living roots are in the soil producing sugars and storing carbon until the ground freezes.

Cover crops within our no-till system are key for building soil organic matter while gradually reducing weed pressure (we hope!) and we had just finished seeding when the rain started. Whew.

The beds we rotated out are filled with early perennials, all bulbs: narcissus, allium & crocosmia and, at least through next year, we will rotate through two different diverse mixes of annuals. While the flower leaves are alive and producing energy for the next year’s bulbs we want to grow a low crop, probably clover and radish. Then, when the bulb foliage dies back, we can flail mow the bed and harrow the very top (1/2”) of the bed to chop the upper rootstock before planting a fall mix of taller plants that will encourage mycorrhizal fungi and provide food for soil organisms.

We buy our cover crop seed from Green Cover Seed in Nebraska . The founders were early no-till pioneers and their catalog includes articles on all aspects of cover crop use (check our their website).

Our process:

Flail mower in a bed we formed this spring. It was in a soil building spring mix.

Flail mower in a bed we formed this spring. It was in a soil building spring mix.

Everything is done with either hand tools (sickle, hoes, wheelbarrow, forks) or our BCS 2-wheel tractor. I’ll write another post specifically about the BCS this fall because I love it so much (and never have to use a four-wheel tractor).

Using attachments for the BCS we can form beds, flail and sickle mow, harrow, and plant. The flail mower chops even very tall and thick foliage.


Beds after flail mowing

Beds after flail mowing

After the beds have been mowed I used an adjustable power harrow to stir the very top layer of soil. Within the longer-term goal of never tilling the short-term goal is to decrease weed pressure while preparing a seedbed for the cover crop mix. So, setting the harrow for 1/2”, I made a pass with the BCS on each bed.

The harrow is essentially a series of eggbeaters that spin around horizontally and stir the soil rather than a rototiller-style vertical mixing. This lets us chop the roots and soften the topmost layer without bringing new seeds up from below or (hopefully) adversely affecting the biome.

Two beds after harrowing the top 1/2”.

Two beds after harrowing the top 1/2”.

And then we sowed and the torrential rain last night should jumpstart germination!

Beelining Basics

Earlier this summer I was given a copy of Dr. Thomas Seeley’s book Following the Wild Bees (here) and have been enjoying beelining during down time. In short, beelining is the practice (or sport) of catching bees, feeding them a delicious syrup, and convincing them to bring fellow foragers back for syrup while you follow their flight line to their hive.

While this is a traditional hive-hunting method for honey collection, it’s now a hobby and a means of surveying the wild bee population.

I built a beelining box from scrap lumber and a small sheet of acrylic and set off to (briefly) trap foraging bees.

Around the farm it’s silly to beeline (other than to practice technique) because I know where the bees are coming from — on the hill above the garden! At parks, though, it’s fair game.

I took a break from catching apis mellifera to gather up carpenter and bumble bees as well.

I’m thoroughly enjoying beelining and I’m learning a great deal about what pollinators are around. Much recommended!

A few links about Dr. Seeley & beelining:

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Honey Harvest & Bee Photos

Our apiary is tucked into several nooks in the windbreak of eastern red cedars that separates our flowers from a hay field, and earlier this summer we harvested a super crop of light, smooth basswood honey.

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Hive and nucleus

Earlier this year

The green hive on the left overwintered really well, and we split it into three nucleus colonies which we fed and have now successfully drawn out wax for their brood chambers and are working on filling honey supers. Before bees can store nectar and pollen they need to draw out cells within the frames, which requires lots (and lots) of wax, produced from a gland on their bellies. They tend to draw wax during the spring flow, and I was really pleased with how many frames of wax cells the splits filled.

Our established hives had already completed this work, and so the spring flow was a time for them to head straight to honey production.

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Honey

A frame of capped honey

The boxes we stack on top of the main bee brood chamber for honey production are called ‘supers’ and this spring each 10-frame super weighed just over 50 pounds. After removing the wax cappings (leaving the cell structure intact) we collected roughly 40 pounds of honey per super.

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2 lb jars of basswood honey

The fall nectar flow is starting, fueled by the sporadic rain we’ve gotten, and I expect the honey to be much darker than the spring’s.

A few photos of the bees:



Worm Bin & Worm Breeding

The first of our cinder-block worm bins now has a layer of coconut bedding, worms, and slightly-composted food! While the initial batch of worms are acclimating to the conditions at the city garden, more worms are breeding in dedicated trays with horse manure as food.

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A worm breeding tray

Sidebar on Persistent Herbicides

A note — Most (nearly all) hay grown in the USA has been sprayed with at least one persistent herbicide so we are very careful not to mix castings from manure with castings from food waste (we poisoned our home tomatoes a few years ago and learned this lesson the hard way).

Persistent pyridine carboxylic acid herbicides and their residue remain active even after the hay is digested and the manure composted in a hot aerobic pile. These four are bad, but we are also concerned about the presence of long-lived non-persistent broadleaf herbicides such as dicamba & 2,4-d. The US Composting Council publishes a series of fact sheets on the topic. Here’s one.

So we have worms breeding in bins in our basement, hopefully happily producing many cocoons each one of which will hatch multiple baby worms. With them fully engaged we set up a cinder block bin in the shadiest spot on the garden plot a few weeks ago.

Our bin is 4’ x 8’ from outer edge to outer edge, with the air space inside the blocks hopefully stabilizing temperature inside. At a usable ~12 sq ft, we want to start with no less than 15 lbs of worms.

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Cinder block worm bin

Worms are fantastic decomposers but they’re also apparently delicious, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t attract birds, raccoons, possum, etc, and topped the bin with a lid.

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And with the lid

Eager to use our new trommel, we took the time to screen a previous worm bin, using a 1/2” and 1/4” screen in sequence.

Adult worms that didn’t fit through the 1/4” mesh, along with the larger items from their environment

Adult worms that didn’t fit through the 1/4” mesh, along with the larger items from their environment

A production worm bin needs 1 to 2 pounds of worms per square foot of surface area, so until we stock the bin at this level we’re rationing the food waste. Our plan is to take partially-composted food waste from the main working pile after several days, which will not only homogenize the food and jumpstart the decomposition, but also pseudo-pasteurize the worm food by cooking it at ~135 degrees for 3 days.

I can’t rush the worm breeding, but it’s hard not to check their progress twice a day. They’re such nifty animals!

First Compost at the City Garden

Thank You!

A huge thanks to everyone who has begun composting with us! We’re excited to be growing and hope to continue to bring in more friends and neighbors — we have lots of plans for our compost! We want to:

  • grow flowers at our downtown LRA plot using compost as the base medium

  • share finished, screened compost with our members

  • feed the red wiggler worms we’re breeding in our basement (more on vermicast another time)

  • keep 1k lbs of food waste per week out of our landfills (spread the word!)

The Big Event

Thursday was our inauguration of our pallet compost bin and we’re so excited to have begun composting on the site which we plan to transform from an abandoned mostly-concrete slab to wood-framed raised beds for flowers. We’ve got a long way to go, but the path is paved with buckets of compost (as they say).

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The garden as we took it from the land reclamation authority (pallets are ours)

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Preparing to mix the first food scraps

Making compost requires a mix of materials that encourages aerobic microbes — not just bacteria but also fungus, actinomycetes, and a diverse set of small animals — that collectively turn the food waste into stable finished compost.

Mixed correctly, the pile will have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1 and be composed of a range of particle sizes to allow air, water, and microbes to move throughout. We take our mixing very seriously and use Cornell’s compost calculator to help us get the ratios right. At present we use chipped wood from local tree-trimming services and coconut coir as primary carbon sources. They’re pesticide-free and make a stable, pH-balanced mix that crumbles nicely once finished.

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A layer of food (nitrogen) over a layer of carbon (wood/coir)

Once it’s mixed we check the moisture level (like a wet sponge) and close up.

A properly-formed compost pile will generate enough heat from microbial action to heat itself to near-pasteurizing temperatures. Our goal is to keep the pile at ~135 for 4 days, which is sufficient to kill most weed seeds (although not always tomatoes, those are really hardy!) as well as knock the levels of harmful bacteria down to insignificant levels. The minimum pile size is roughly 1 cubic yard of material, or 200 gallons, so the more composting supporters we have the better for this step!

After the pile has cooked a bit we turn and, soon, will feed this pre-compost to our worms. The majority we re-mix, adjust water if needed, and let heat again. After a second heat phase we set it aside to cure, allowing the remaining microbes to gradually finish their work before sifting, sharing and applying to our garden.

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Our 1/2 inch trommel (off its stand)

We sift with trommel screens made from unusable bike wheels (huge thanks to Mike’s Bikes & B-Works STL) and hardware cloth: 1/2 in, 1/4 in, and 1/8 in (for vermicast, to catch worm cocoons).

I love talking about compost, so send questions or comments to matt@blhfarm.com.