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When my kids whine that something is not fair I am quick to point out to the little darlings that life is not fair…get used to it!

Well life was not fair in the pumpkin patch this year either…

have1

Can you guess what one big exuberant pumpkin on the right got that the other puny anemic pumpkin on the left did not?

 

have2

Huge and healthy…

 

have3

Not quite so much…

Those of you that guessed compost give yourselves a pat on the back…yep I ran out on the last pumpkin plant.

Same seed packet, same tender loving care under the grow lights, same fish fertilizer, same plastic cap to protect from early spring cold snaps…the only difference between these two plants is that the big one got a shovel full of compost at planting and the smaller one did not.

 

have5

They both are being faithfully visited by pollinators…

 

have4

Yet the little guy has only 5 pumpkins while the big guy is up to almost 30!

So lesson for me is to make more compost…

Lesson for the little pumpkin plant…

 

Life is not fair…get used to it!

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Russian comfrey

Russian comfrey


Comfrey: super-plant or overrated weed? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it.
comfrey roots

comfrey roots

A perennial herb, a member of the borage family, its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals. Comfrey leaves contain more Nitrogen and Potassium/Potash (K) than farmyard manure or garden compost and more Phosphorus than farmyard manure. They have a low fibre content, so they readily decompose, producing comfrey tea and a relatively low carbon to nitrogen ratio so that they don’t rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose (when laid on the surface or dug in).

If I plant it, will it spread like a weed? That depends on what variety of comfrey you have. Common comfrey Symphytum officinale, seeds freely and therefore may well become a problem. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the other hand, produces very little viable seed, so conveniently stays where you put it. But it will always stay where you put it, as you’ll never dig it out without breaking off a little bit of root, which will re-grow, so choose the position of your comfrey patch with care. The Bocking 14 cultivar of Russian Comfrey was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic) and is even richer in the useful minerals. The Bocking 4 cultivar was developed to be more suitable as animal fodder but I can’t source any in the UK or France and have only found Richters in Canada selling it.

How do I grow comfrey? Without seed, we propagate it from root cuttings. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait comfrey patch new(you can mulch them with cardboard, as we’ve done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference). If you’re starting off, I suggest that you buy no more than six plants. You’d be surprised how much leaf material you’ll be able to crop once the plants are established (leave them a year before you start cropping).

They might mine all these nutrients for you but they also appreciate being fed and are greedy for nitrogen when growing; they can cope with fresh (i.e., uncomposted) chicken manure, so we tend to clean our chicken house onto our nearby comfrey patch.

comfrey root cuttings

comfrey root cuttings

You’ll also then be able to propagate further plants by lifting one and divide the roots into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground.

cutting comfrey

cutting comfrey

Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

comfrey in dustbin

comfrey in dustbin

How do I make comfrey tea?
Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains all. This photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don’t add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.


Do animals like comfrey? Whether fair or not, the spread of wild comfrey along roadside hedgerows is often attributed to gypsies that fed comfrey leaves to their horses as a tonic. It’s said that Russian comfrey was introduced into Britain specifically as a fodder plant. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Fellow NotDabbling writer Monica, told me that she planted comfrey some years ago, “but the sheep ate it all before it could get going and I lost it.” So it’s thumbs up from sheep. However, our pigs, who are free range, and so have a wide variety of stuff to snack on, didn’t seem desperately interested and, as for the goat, watch the second video for our scientific taste test and make your own mind up.


Comfrey as medicine? A vernacular English name for comfrey is “knitbone” and medieval herbalists called it “bone set”. It contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue. Effective as it is externally, don’t take it internally, as it contains alkaloids, which can cause liver damage in large quantities.

Thanks to the following books for their information: Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association); Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield and Wikipedia.

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seedlings waiting for warm weather

seedlings waiting for warm weather

 To get a jump on gardening we need to be ready, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate.  We start seedlings with the anticipation that the weather will comply, and be dry and warm enough for our tender babies.  But that usually isn’t the case in early spring. 

A great low-tech way to start seeds and keep the seedlings warm during the first tender growth is to use a hot bed.  Common in Europe for market gardens, the idea was readlily adapted to big city market gardens in the US as well, since there was never a shortage of hot horse manure from livery stables in every city.  After the Civil War, Peter Henderson was a very successful market gardener, stretching his growing season using the hot bed method for growing lettuce in the off season, and forcing other popular vegetables for sale in the big city.

On any farmstead there is always manure to be had, and this is one way to squeak one more use out of this precious commodity before it heads to the compost pile.   

hens and hotbed

hens and hotbed

 We have two small 20′ x 20′ greenhouses that we built for brooding chicks when we sold eggs.  To make these user friendly, we planned a personnel area for the humans. It is a great place to store feed and extra bedding and also a warm, toasty area for starting plants and keeping them warm until the weather breaks. 

Hubby built a 2′ x 3′ bottomless box out scraps for my small hotbed.  I fill this with manure and bedding about two weeks before I want to start seeds.  I want the compost to reach its peak temperature, and then when it starts to decline and reaches 80°F, I can place my flats of seeds on top of the compost.  That temperature is a good range for most seeds, if you’re starting tomatoes and peppers, 85°F would be better.  I keep the hot bed loosely covered with a piece of plastic, to keep the humidity up.  Once the seedlings emerge, the cover comes off during the day, unless it is very cold.  At night the cover goes back on in case of a frost.

60 degrees

60 degrees

 I am hardening these brassica and salad green seedlings off now, so 60°F is a great temperature.  I am not covering this at night.  These plants are almost ready to plant out. 

cover on cool nights

cover on cool nights

I also use electric heat mats to start seedlings, but this method is free, using no electricity.  I have two boxes, and to have a succession going, I need to have another box heating up and ready while this one is cooling down.  When the compost gets too cool to start seeds, you can lift off the box, remove the pile and refill with fresh manure and bedding.

If the box does not heat up, you need more manure, or if you are confident you have quite a bit of fresh manure, add water.  Monitor the temperature, if it doesn’t rise in a few days after adding water, you do need more manure. 

With a few scraps and  a wheelbarrow of manure, you can have an effective non-electric way to start seeds and wait out Old Man Winter!

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Brewing Compost

Many of us gardeners are getting ready to seeds for the upcoming planting season.  Those seeds need lots of nutrition to get started right.  Consider brewing some compost tea to keep those seeds healthy and happy.

Brew compost tea by filling a container loosely with your compost and then filling the container with water.  A 5 gallon bucket works great.  Its best to brew it in small batches as it loses nutrients the longer it sits.  Stir the container once a day for a week.  At the end of the week, strain the mixture, to keep the solids out of your tea.  If you want to put the tea into a spray bottle, be sure to strain it very well so your sprayer doesn’t get clogged.  Otherwise, it doesn’t have to be perfectly free of solids.  The left over solid compost can be added to your garden or the bottom of your seed starting pots. 

To use your compost tea, you need to dilute it otherwise it might be strong and burn your seedlings.  Dilution to 10 parts water to 1 part compost tea is considered safe and nutritious for your plants.  Consider using this compost tea on your seeds, seedlings, garden, and houseplants.  If its strained very well, it could be added to a lawn sprayer and sprayed over your lawn and garden. 

Happy Brewing!  A tip: If you practice vermicomposting, like I do.  Use that worm water in the same fashion as compost tea.

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This weekend had some fine day time temps. Mid 50’s. Sunny. No wind. Very nice. Absolutely perfect, and almost spring like, for which to do work in the garden.
Your probably wondering what I planted since as most know I live in a quite southerly position of the U.S., but alas even in my climate zone it is to early to plant anything new out.
However beautiful temperatures like this allow me to get out and do the important but sometimes overlooked part of gardening: working my soil. No I am not tilling but I am building it up and adding more organic matter while I am doing other maintenance issues like cleaning up.

I know, I know your thinking this subject again (!) but I just have to bring it up because in my very recent past I have stumbled on two people….both “newer” gardeners….but both with some experience….that still don’t understand this very most important part of gardening. The part that is all work and not quite as much fun. They talked about low yields, bugs/diseases and the sore muscle factor of digging and working the soil….all by products of bad soil structure. Something that requires work, and lots of it in the beginning, but the payoff is supreme.
No matter how many plants you put in your garden, or how many different types you try, or even how many years in a row you do it….you will not be successful, or as successful, if you don’t improve your soil. Every year. It is a must. And no matter how you do it….you must do it.
As one person asked me “ I just need to get some fertilizer don’t you think?”
Though fertility is a need for plants…poor soil structure, especially in the organic garden, will influence your plants more. In my garden I do fertilize but I also build soil. Every year, all year and anytime I get a hold of something to do it with. Newspapers, hay, compost,manure, cardboard, leaves and on and on. I am always on the lookout for free or low cost supplies for this purpose. Building soil in and of itself will create fertility in the garden whether or not we add kelp or green sand, blood or bone meal—all much more expensive items. All those guys are good helpers, and yes sometimes needed, but an icky soil is an icky soil. Remember nature knows how to care for herself and she builds soil above and beyond anything else.

I have added a few pictures of some of my soil for you to see. I apologize since it is raining this morning as I took them. One of the photos has hay in it. I have been gardening in this spot with the hay for 3 years now. Lift the hay and even now in the winter there are bunches of worms and bugs working away while the hay protects the soil from erosion and weathering during extreme rains. You can see that the heavy layer of hay in this area is still quite thick and not broken down yet. The flakes, pulled off of the wet partially rotting bales in November, probably won’t finish composting until later this summer which is fine as it helps keep the bermuda grass that tries to creep into that area under control (I am slowly eradicating it but it has been an ongoing battle). I still have some bales lined up out of the picture that are slowly being moved around permanent plantings like my artichokes and berry plants. I work on it every time I get a chance.
My neighbor asked me what I could possibly grow this spring with it still like that and this is what I said: potatoes or tomato plants or squash or soybeans or sunflowers or a new row of asparagus. The list goes on and on. Really all I have to do is part the soil (I mean hay chunks) exactly where I will put the seed or plant and I am in business. And though while the plants grow they may need a boost of nitrogen ( blood meal, cottonseed meal, urine, manure, etc) to help while this stuff breaks down ,weed competition should be almost nil or at the most very easy to uproot. Oh by the way, any hay will work for this but less seedy is best. This is some alfalfa mix hay we had left over and so I should get not only soil building but some good organic nitrogen when it finishes decomposing.

The next picture is of the area that, since the end of the growing season last year, has not yet had any soil amending. Part of it did have peanuts grown and tilled in but not all of it. This is where the last of my leaves from the city composted down and you can see the soil is fabulous. Digging in it is no work at all…really. The work is easy and goes quickly here. Even though it is raining you can see the soil isn’t clumpy like wet clay but when it hasn’t rained it still does not need the same amount of watering as some areas not as improved. Quite a bonus really. My plants that grew here last year where fabulous and required just a bit of nitrogen since the leaves where not fully finished decomposing but where pretty maintenance free other than that. This area is nothing like it was when we dug (or should I say chipped) our first hole into it when we moved here almost 5 years ago. This area has been under serious cultivation for about 3 years also. Rotating into this area in the early spring will be my potatoes. I am going to try a technique I read about in an old Organic Gardening Magazine from the 70’s that should give me more pounds harvested and build my soil at the same time. The idea is to dig a trench(s), which I dug this weekend, put about a tablespoon or two of cottonseed meal in the bottom alternating with seed potatoes, then cover with sawdust. The potato is not placed directly on the cottonseed meal but alternated evenly potato,meal,potato,meal. The cottonseed meal will add the nitrogen the decomposing sawdust will steal from the surrounding area while it breaks down. I am hoping I will get nice clean potatoes that grow well. Supposedly the author’s yield was quite a bit better than he had experienced before he began with this technique and lowered his incidence of potato scab in addition. I have an abundance of sawdust from a local mill which will be a good opportunity to use a waste product that’s cheap to acquire. And of course as I mentioned I get a two for one deal: potatoes AND soil building with the same work. Leaves and hay will also work (add a bit of nitrogen with these also since they will steal it too) but as I mentioned the sawdust supposedly helps with scab which is a ph problem.

So, to sum up my post I just want to point out that soil building is a year round thing: springs, summer, fall or winter, but within just a few years you will see obvious differences in bugs, yields and your back.

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Compost Piles

Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Howling Hill.

Howling Hill is a very small homestead. Honestly, I’m not sure it can be considered a homestead because the only animals we have are our cats Harley and Francesca. However, Wolf and I endeavor to have a farm of vegetables and small livestock. We’re leaning toward goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, and pigs. I know pigs are not “small livestock” but we eat a fair amount of pork. We don’t eat beef so getting a cow or two just for cheese seems a little … too much. And horses, as beautiful as they are, are just to big and expensive. I can’t imagine Wolf and I will have a lot of time to ride horses if we’re caring for our farm of livestock.

Despite not having a homestead, we embrace homesteading’s values: reduce, reuse, recycle. Our mindset regarding what’s important has radically changed the way we think, the way we buy, they way we eat, what and how we throw out, and the way we view politics, religion, and society.

Howling Hill is a one acre lot heavily wooded with trees, predominately pines. There is not a lot of sun on our patch of Earth. I’ve talked about wanting to cut down trees on my own blog many times but I’m reluctant to for a couple reasons. First, the expense. It’ll be about $1000 to cut down the trees I want down. Because the majority of those trees are pines I don’t know what we’d do with the wood. Pine is not good to burn because it’s a soft, wet wood. Second, I don’t want to put a ton of money into Howling Hill because Wolf and I won’t live here forever. We’ll stay in the town we live in but not on this plot. Because HH is on a hill (hence the name) most of the lot is unbuildable.* We never thought of Howling Hill as our dream place merely as a stepping stone to our dream place.

That said, we still learn as much as we can about homesteading, animal care, reducing and reusing, etc. And one of the things we put a lot of time learning about is composting because that is one component of homesteading anyone can participate in no matter how small or large the plot of land you live on is.

One of the first posts I wrote on Howling Hill was about composting. Wolf built compost piles at my request. — I’d show you a picture of them today but it’s a little snowy out there right now thus you can’t see anything. — The compost is predominately food scraps from our dinner table. We don’t put any meat or meat products into the compost because that will attract the wrong sort of critters, though surprisingly I don’t see many critters out there to begin with. Because the compost is behind some fir trees it doesn’t get a lot of sun. The food begins to pile up, I’d say with an average height of two feet. I don’t fluff the pile too much because I don’t want to release too much of the heat the compost creates but I do fluff on occasion.

The best way to fluff your compost pile I’ve found is to get some chickens. Wolf and I were amazed at how rich the compost was when the Chicken Ladies did their thing. It was obvious their bodily waste increased the temperature of the pile while they simultaneously aerated the fruit and vegetable matter while hunting for yummy bugs.** Because the compost has never broken down the way it should — I think it’s never really gotten hot enough — we’ve not been able to use it on our garden which really sucks. However, now that we know the chickens are fab compost-maintainers we’ll put them to work. Next year we plan on fencing in part of the yard, including the compost pile, so we can keep the Ladies alive and well fed while making them work for us by aerating the compost. Then we’ll be able to use it for our garden come fall 2009.

Composting is easy and low cost. It cuts down on the amount of trash in a landfill. You can go out and buy one of those composters but I don’t think you want petroleum based chemicals mixed in with your compost. Besides, why spend over $200 when you don’t have to? You don’t have to build something like Wolf did though I’m sure he’d be flattered if you did =). At our last home (in the suburbs) we just had a pile in the corner of the yard of fruits, vegetables, and grass clippings. There wasn’t any wood surrounding the pile and though it became the neighborhood dog magnet it composted just fine.

One note too keep in mind is this: don’t make your compost pile too big. Wolf and I made this mistake. If the pile is too deep it takes too long to breakdown. Fluffing is good but you don’t want to do it too often. Throw some manure (horse or chicken works best) onto the pile every now and again to heat up the pile and to allow the feces and urine chemicals to do their breakdown thing too.

I’m not going to say composting is “fun and easy” because it’s not particularly fun though it is easy. But it’s a good way to create free fertilizer for your garden and to cut down on the amount you throw away. It feeds the local bird population and possibly the local dog and cat population to as the pile often attracts rodents. Chipmunks and mice seem to love running around the pile picking out what they can. The cats see the pile as their friend. I’ve never seen bears hanging around the pile, nor have I found evidence they do, though that may be our bears here in New Hampshire. If I were you I’d know my local animal population before creating a compost pile because you don’t want to attract animals who will destroy your pile, yard, garden, etc.

Don’t put the pile too close to the house because of the rodents and get some worms to throw in there if you don’t have any.*** It’s better if you have it in a semi-shady area as direct sun isn’t good. This is why our pile is behind fir trees. Certainly it get partial sun during the day but not direct sun all day. Adding water every now and again is also good because it you don’t want it to get too dry but don’t make it too moist either. I don’t think I’ve ever put water on the pile but the Northeast is fairly wet so that’s why I haven’t. If you’re in a dry climate some moisture every now and again is a good idea.

Overall composting is a great way to participate in homesteading if you’re like us and can’t have the farm you dream of.

*Don’t you love making up words?
**Not yummy to me, yummy to them.
***Wanna send me some worms come spring? If so email me and I’ll send you my address.

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//i34.tinypic.com/2ziy6va.jpg" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>I heart manure.  I happen to believe that agriculture needs animals to survive.  Nature operates that way, so I think our farms and gardens should too.  One of the single most limiting factors in a vegetable garden or cropping system is having enough fertilizer.  I don’t mean the 16-16-16 at the co-op, there is plenty of that if you can afford it.  I mean the black gold that comes from gathering animal manures along with carbon materials and letting nature take its course.  Our compost piles on our farm are made up of gathered animal manure, and different bedding materials, such as straw or sawdust.  And I don’t think you need large livestock either.  Any animal will do, for doo.  Several laying hens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and worms are the first to come to mind for a small farm, or urban gardener.  The key ingredient is gathering carbon to tie down those nutrients that your animals are so lovingly giving you each day.  Another important thing to consider is gathering this material now and throughout the winter and early spring.  The soil is dormant now, applying manure or compost can be a potential waste.  Applying fertilizer when plants are actively growing is the optimum time, for the plants, and the soil. 

Where do you find carbon for tying down the nutrients in your manure?  Look around and ask.  A horse stable near us, hauls their stable cleanings, made up of horse manure and sawdust, to us for free.  They see it as a liability.  We see it as free carbon – delivered!  We use it for as bedding for the cows, in addition to straw.  We also buy straw, from a small farmer like us.  I have no problem importing fertility from another farm as long that farmer is willing to part with it, and if I know the farmer hasn’t sprayed a potentially harmful herbicide on his crop.  If I were to grow the grain crop to get that straw, I would have to work up more pasture land, which I don’t want to do.  Any crop that bares the soil, is depleting it.  Grass does not.  So to be ahead of the game, bring in, or grow your own carbon.  You will be at least tripling your output of manure.  Straight manure is too strong anyway for gardens. 

Another way to get more bang for your buck is to feed top quality natural minerals and salt to your stock.  High quality kelp meal and Redmond salt come to mind.  Anything you can run through an animal’s digestive system comes out better than what goes in.  Our house compost goes to our hens, coffee grounds, eggshells, peelings, and whatever.  I don’t have to maintain a compost pile that the dogs want to get into, and the hens get a treat.  Same with plant residues in the garden.  Our Thanksgiving turkey flock has eaten all the spent brassicas from the garden, and the sheep are in the greenhouse now eating tomato and pepper plants.  This helps with the disease factor too.  And it makes less cleanup for me.

One year as an experiment I hauled the cleanings from my milk cow stall to the garden and sheet composted  it.  In 3 1/2 months of barn cleaning, I covered about 1/3 of an acre with those daily wheelbarrow loads.  What did I learn?  I could cover that much ground in a few months with the output of one cow and small calf.  But, I gave the voles excellent cover, and the soil stayed cooler with all that cover.  The soil texture was great when it came time to work the soil, but I probably wasted quite a bit of fertility by putting it on the soil during the winter.  Even though we have a fair amount of manure, I don’t want to waste it.  Now I make large compost piles with the manure from the milk cow.  Our compost piles are outside, but they are about 5′ high and sloped.  They shed rain, and can really compost.  We patiently wait one year before applying.  They are on soil, and completely filled with worms until they are finished composting.

Our beef herd is a little different, when the grazing season is over we keep the cattle in the barns with a small sacrifice area.  Using a deep bedding pack ala Salatin, we can keep most of the manure from getting rained on.  Sometimes the bedding pack is 4′ deep by spring.  We apply clean bedding everyday, and it begins to compost a little, providing a comfortable warm bed for the cows.  How much bedding does it take?  A lot.  Joel Salatin’s rule of thumb is “If you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement.”  (That little sentence applies to every type of animal.)   Especially ammonia, if you smell that, you should just picture money evaporating into thin air.  That is the nitrogen in the manure dissipating.  Add more bedding.  In a dry climate, you won’t need as much, in a damp climate, you will need more. 

We only have a few hens now, and to make the most of their chicken manure, I place their roost against a wall, and bed the spot under it daily with straw.  It is amazing how much material I can gather from just 11 hens, and a few bales of straw.  It really adds up. 

These are just a few of the ways to gather manure from your animals, if you have them.  I know it can be a pain to clean out stalls, but just think of how good your garden and pasture can grow.  Think of manure as an investment in your future.

 If you don’t have livestock, there are many farmers willing to foolishly let go of one of their better assets.  A quick tour of blogs turned up a couple photos of husbands out spreading manure on the neighbors place!  That is not sustainable for the farm producing the compost, but you can’t blame the neighbor for taking it.  So be frugal and keep your manure at home, and if your neighbor offers his, jump at the chance!

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