There is one last post that I need to get up before we kick off the soil building challenge. This is based on a workshop I gave ten days ago at the Country Living Expo but it’s been on my mind for about a year now.
It’s All About the Soil
When I first started gardening I put my back into it. I worked my tail off and enjoyed it, but as time went on and I added animals to the system I noticed some big changes. Sometimes that meant the chickens completely took out an entire winter’s worth of seedlings that I had forgotten to cover, or that the ducks got into the hoop house and did the same thing. But as I learned to remember to fence off critical garden areas, my animals and foul have actually decreased the amount of work that I do in the garden.
Because in the end the most important thing in your garden is not the plants – it’s the soil. If your soil is healthy with good structure, you can eke heaps of the most nutritious, flavorful, gorgeous vegetables imaginable. If your soil is not healthy, your plants may be stunted, diseased, bland and minimal. It’s not about your thumb, it’s about your soil.
Understanding Plant Needs
Healthy plants need water, air and minerals, which are all absorbed by the plant through its root system. Adding decayed (or decaying) organic matter to the soil creates a perforated structure that absorbs water without becoming waterlogged, and creates good airflow. This soil structure not only allows plants to develop healthy root systems, but provides decomposers like fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other critters (the web of soil life) with their favorite food. It’s the waste product of this web of life that feeds the plants. So the goal of the organic gardener is to create a soil structure that feeds the web of life.
A good way to create organic matter is to compost both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) things, keeping them aerated and moist. A great way to compost is to let small livestock do it for you.
Good = you scrounging for things to compost and doing all the work
Better = animals providing you with valuable inputs and you doing all the work
Best = animals providing you with inputs and doing all the work
Small animals like chickens or ducks will require some amount of bedding in coops or runs. If you have dairy goats, multiply that amount by fifty. The beauty of bedding is that it already contains valuable manure and urine and counts as a “brown”. “Browns” are hard to come by unless it’s autumn and your neighbors are lining up sacks of raked leaves, or you just shucked an entire garden bed full of corn and have the cobs and papery outer leaves to dispose of.
To keep the ratios right, however, you need equal parts brown to green. Where do you get those greens? Just mowed grass is perfect. But what do you do in the winter when yours and your neighbor’s lawns stop growing? Garden and kitchen scraps are great. And how do you generate enough to match your brown volume?
The Magic Begins
You could find a grocery store that throws away past-prime vegetables and add that directly to your compost. Or you could take those greens, feed them to your chickens, get eggs and then compost the parts the chickens don’t eat. You could also do this with your lawn trimmings. And then your chickens can scratch through to turn the pile (aka their bedding, unwanted food scraps and manure) into compost for you. Are you starting to see the magic?
If you aren’t a composter (or even if you are) you might instead use green manure. This is where you plant cover crops directly in your garden beds, then before the cover crop goes to seed you “chop and drop” or hoe it in. Some manures that winterkill, like oats, will naturally die when the first frosts hit and then decompose on their own requiring no work on your part. Taking this idea one step farther you could plant cover crops that your chickens love to eat, like wheat, barley, oats, kales, lettuce. Build a “tractor” or cover that protects the chickens from wandering dogs or overhead predators and keeps them in the exact garden bed you need worked. The chickens will eat some of the cover crop, scratch (think till) it in for you and leave their valuable manure behind. And all you had to do was scatter some cover crop seeds!
Now imagine an elevated rabbit hutch above a compost pile. The ideal rabbit diet is alfalfa (a green chock-full of nutrients and organic matter), hay (a brown), black oil sunflower seeds (essential fats), some form of protein like cracked peas, and oats or barley. Rabbits tend to spill a fair bit of food. Alone, that food would simply go to waste and possibly attract rodents. However, with chickens, that spilled alfalfa moistened by a waiting compost pile suddenly becomes a green – something difficult for chickens to come by in the winter.
Alfalfa, as a plant, is a nitrogen fixer with long tap roots that allow it to draw deep nutrients from soils. For this reason it’s highly sought after as a garden amendment. In your compost, it imparts great fertility. In your eggs, it imparts dark orange yolks.
Another thing that imparts dark orange yolks? Worms, centipedes and pill bugs that are also attracted to that compost pile. Thanks to the decaying matter but also thanks to the rabbit and chicken manure that essentially predigests the plant matter and makes it especially attractive to decomposers – which are what your chickens really want to eat, and what makes their eggs particularly healthful compared to purely grain fed eggs.
Other things your rabbits spill are hay (a brown which you frequently must add to a compost pile that is constantly “moistened” by rabbits), seeds and grains. Instead of attracting rodents, the seeds and grains will attract your chickens which will happily clean up what would otherwise become a rodent-attracting mess and they will pick through the rabbit manure for any fly larvae.
Now we are turning liabilities (wasted, rat-enticing food and fly larvae, soiled animal bedding, yard waste) into assets (compost, healthy chickens and eggs). This is the beauty of a guild – a combination of things that work better together than they do their own. Sometimes guilds are groupings of plants. In this case it’s a grouping of small animals and compost that helps you feed the web of life. And in return for that (if you so choose), you get the occasional meat and eggs (and dairy if you have mini goats) and valuable compost for your garden.
Now we are really strengthening the relationships between the garden [growing food for] you [and] chickens [and] rabbits, [who work and amend] the compost [which feeds] the soil structure [while increasing] nutrients [which improve health in] the crops, you, and the animals.
The Voodoo of Doo Doo
The compost this guild provides is truly magical but you can take it one step further with the addition of a vermicompost tea brewer. You can make one yourself using a drill, two matching rubber storage tubs, and a piece of hardware cloth.
To make a vermicompost tea brewer:
- Take one rubber storage bin.
- Place some bricks or overturned pots inside it to act as spacers.
- Take the other matching rubber storage bin and drill holes in the bottom and the lower third of the sides.
- Line the bottom of the bin you just drilled holes into with hardware cloth.
- Add six inches of well-moistened leaves or well-moistened, shredded junk mail (no shiny paper please).
- Add several inches of garden soil or compost.
- Add red wiggler worms. (You can obtain these online or through the Seattle Farm Coop, www.NorthwestWigglers.com in Lake Stevens, Seattle Tilth, www.YelmWorms.com or www.WormLady.com in Chehalis.)
- Add kitchen scraps and top with a final few inches of moistened junk mail or leaves to discourage fruit flies and trap any odors and snap on the lid.
- Nestle the filled and drilled rubber storage bin into the one with spacers.
- Continue adding kitchen scraps by burying them below the top layer and be sure the bedding remains really moist. This will encourage your vermicompost tea to brew (as moisture drips down through the vermicompost and into the waiting container below).
To harvest the vermicompost tea, simply lift out the top bin and pour or ladle the brew into a recycled glass bottle with a lid (like a vinegar bottle).
It will be as thick and dark as motor oil and so strong that using more than a few drops in a pint of water may burn your plants. Diluted in this fashion, however, it’s pure plant voodoo. You can spray it directly on plant leaves as a foliar or use it to water starts or potted plants. I would never consider starting tomato plants from seed without this voodoo.
Ducks Work Hard (So You Don’t Have To)
Ducks are yet another type of garden helper that love worms and pill bugs. But what ducks love even more than worms are slugs (those dastardly composters that desecrate your garden through spring and summer.) Keeping a few ducks on hand to roam the garden is my favorite form of slug-prevention. So long as there are slugs and bugs for ducks to eat, they ignore your plantings. But once the slugs and bugs are gone they will start helping themselves to your vegetables so keep a watchful eye on them! Ducks produce rich, large eggs prized for baking but unsupervised, they can be more hindrance than help in the garden. Use with caution.
This last magic guild requires substantially more fussing and planning to pull off.
In nature, tilapia eat a wide variety of food including plankton, green leaves, fish larvae and decaying organic matter. You can mimic that in your backyard using rabbit poop (recall that it’s really partially digested, nutrient-dense green matter?)
Tilapia need temperatures near 80 degrees F to grow well. You can achieve this by building a sun porch or small green house attached to the south side of your house to take advantage of escaped heat and sunlight. If you build your winter rabbit housing above the tilapia pool (which could be as simple as 55 gallon drums with aeraters and filters painted black to help absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible), the rabbits will feed the tilapia and help to warm the structure with their body heat. In the summertime when temperatures inside get above 80 degrees F, you’ll want to remove the rabbits since they do best with slightly cooler temperatures. You might even position your rabbit housing so that it’s only partially above the tilapia tanks, then add a compost pile under the remaining section of rabbit housing.
The combination of composting organic matter, rabbits, escaping heat from your house and sunlight may be enough to heat the tilapia water. If that’s not sufficient, a small space heater on a low setting overnight may be all you need.
You may even consider keeping your laying hens (or new chicks) in this greenhouse to benefit from the increased light, warmth, and to speed up the composting process which will generate more heat. More light and warmth will increase winter egg yields. You can use the top of the rabbit housing as a place for early spring starts (so long as the chickens cannot fly up and eat them). The starts will also benefit from the warmth and increased light. If your greenhouse is large enough, you could add some heat loving plants.
Selling backyard eggs, spring salad greens and heirloom tomatoes fresh off the vine (and perhaps grown directly in the compost?) in January might generate enough income to pay for your space heater and then some, thereby subsidizing your tilapia operation.
It’s also possible to add a hydroponic garden into a tilapia setup, and to combine tilapia with a duck pond but the setup becomes much more expensive and complicated as you need to prevent the ducks from eating the fish and the plants as well as filter the fish and duck waste safely (the duck waste presents a problem for the fish and for leafy green edibles).