The Call, Column 58 – A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

13 11 2016

(October 23, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

 Despite the unseasonable heat we’ve enjoyed this week, the fall is chugging steadily along. Soon enough, New England will be plunged into winter. The Farmers’ Almanac said it’ll be an exceptionally cold, snowy one this year, which is good reason for we urban farmers to focus well on preparing our homesteads for the cold and snow. Today, we’ll talk about a couple of important tasks that need to get done before that fateful time when the ground freezes, based on my own experiences.

The Vegetable Garden

            I hope you’ve had a good year in the garden, and that the last of your summer crops, as well as the glut of your fall ones, are maturing and ready to harvest. You’ll want to keep close watch of the weather, or at least put a weather alert app on your phone. Most annual crops, especially the remnants of the summer garden, need to be harvested before we get hit with a killing-frost. This usually happens in mid-to-late October, but we’ve been lucky so far (or unlucky, as the delayed onset of cold weather is an indicator of accelerating climate change). I usually wait it out as long as I can, and when the freezing temperatures seem imminent, I’ll do a “big harvest”, collecting everything edible and on-its-way to being edible (i.e. green tomatoes) in the garden, to be eaten, processed, or allowed to ripen. After that, it’s best to pull up all of the spent annuals to prevent overwintering diseases and pests, and either plant for the fall/winter or protect the soil.

It’s too late to plant most fall crops (I wrote a great column last August, about how to do just that!), but there are a few things you’ll want to plant and otherwise do for the health of your soil.

First off, plant garlic! This should go in sometime in the coming couple of weeks. I think I’ll plant my large selection of organic garlic this weekend, to allow it a bit of mild weather to establish itself.

Now is also a great time to plant cover crops, which are various cold season grasses, legumes, and the like that serve as a living mulch over the winter, and can be tilled into the soil for a fertility boost in the spring. As you pull up your spent vegetable plants, you should do some combination of the following, or ideally all of them: plant cover crops; apply manure, so it has the winter to compost and sterilize (or, at minimum, get some at leave it in a pile to compost); apply compost; and mulch the soil with anything from straw to grass to the coming onslaught of leaves (shredded, for faster breakdown).

Perennial Fruits

            In New England, now is actually a pretty good time to plant perennial fruit trees, bushes, and groundcovers. If they’re dormant when they ship from the nursery, they will not really start growing until next spring; if they aren’t, or you get them from a local nursery, they will grow a little and then go dormant as the weather cools. I tend to prefer to plant new perennials in spring, but I know of plenty of people who have made successful fall plantings.

For perennial fruits that are already established, late-October/early-November is when they need to be pruned. Grape vines should be cut down to a few feet above the ground; bramble canes that fruited for the first time this year or last year (depending on the specific cultivar) can be cut to the ground; and other fruit trees and bushes should be pruned carefully, to allow airflow between branches and facilitate whatever harvesting/plant-training program you have in mind.

New plantings and old should be mulched again in the fall, to keep the soil relatively warm and foster biological activity. For more detail on any particular crop, consult a reliable online source, or a homesteading book like John Seymour’s The New Self-Sufficient Gardener.

Irrigation System

            Rain barrels are sort of a sticky subject at this point in the year. You don’t want to empty them prematurely and waste the water. However, you have to make sure they are completely empty before the temperatures dip below freezing for an extended time, to prevent them from freezing solid and getting damaged. They should be cleaned at this point in the year, and either put away or otherwise cut off from your downspout (so they don’t fill up again).

Drip irrigation is a little bit of a different story. This is my first year with the system, so I’m writing based on my research rather than personal experience. What I have read has said the system can be left installed during winter. But you definitely want to flush all of the water out, disconnect it from the spigot, and open as many valves and holes as possible (similar to the way normal hoses are winterized). Even if the plastic is capable of withstanding the cold temperatures, the last thing you want is for water to freeze within it and breaking the tube. Refer back to the literature included with your system.

Chickens

            Chickens don’t need to be winterized per se: they thrive happily down to -20°F. But their water is a different story. You need to find a way to prevent it from freezing. I’ve seen designs for passive water heaters, which use a combination of black materials (which absorb light and reemit it as heat) and the greenhouse effect (where a clear container traps sunlight as heat) to keep water above freezing and therefore potable.

I aspire to use something like that one day. But for right now, I use a run-of-the-mill heated waterer. It’s like any chicken watering fount, but has a plug and a heating element built into the base, which turns on when the temperature of the water drops close to freezing. It’s also possible to build one by resting a standard plastic waterer on a heating dog bowl.

Otherwise, just know that your chickens are in for a boring couple of months. There won’t be much garden waste, bugs, grass, and the like for them to enjoy, so you’ll have to give them something to do to prevent cabin fever – like hanging heads of cabbage for them to jump and peck, or just bringing them new and interesting treats (they seemed to really enjoy the acid whey from my homemade Greek yogurt, today). On a more practical note, you also want to make sure to have a good supply of your bedding(s) of choice, as well as their feed. Winter isn’t the best time to run out of these.

Other

            If you have a vermiculture system, it’s best to bring it inside (a basement or unused room), or at least the garage during the winter. The worms don’t do well in the freezing temperatures. If they must stay outside, find the warmest place you can – like within the henhouse, which is naturally kept a little warmer, by the birds.

Finally, you generally want to make sure that the urban farm is clean as we enter the winter months. This is one I have struggled with in recent years, mostly because this time of the fall was usually when school would really pick up.

Make sure all of your tools are clean, sorted, and put somewhere that will be easily accessible come spring. Collect all seed-starting trays, plastic cells/pots, plant markers, and anything else that can get lost or damaged in the snow, clean them off, and bring them inside! I can’t tell you how many black plastic trays I’ve lost because of this type of neglect.

Finally, make sure you’re on the mailing lists of your favorite seed companies. December will be here before you know it, and you know what that means: time to start it all again!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call and Times, Column 24 – The Art and Science of Vermiculture

7 08 2015

(July 5th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Art and Science of Vermiculture

It’s an understatement to say that topsoil is the glue that holds the Earth together. But how it is formed? We’ve dug deep into the mysteries of topsoil, explored natural material cycles, and discussed organic methods for soil fertility. But one aspect of this amazing substance that we haven’t really covered is the little creature responsible for making it: the humble worm.
Consider this your first and only warning – this column is about worms, and the steps that an urban farmer can take to make more of them. If you, like my grandmother, are squeamish about this topic, it’s best to put the newspaper down and go for a walk. I’m just kidding – there are dozens of them in each square foot of the ground you’d walk on, so it’s best just to continue reading.

In today’s column, I want to introduce the simple but powerful art of “vermicomposting” or “vermiculture”. This isn’t nearly as complicated as the technical names imply. Vermiculture leverages the natural tendencies of worms to create rich compost and more worms. For the urban farmer, this means putting some worms and organic material in a box, and letting nature do the rest.

The construction of a vermiculture system (a “worm bin”) is quick and inexpensive. Minimally, you need: a 10 to 20 gallon plastic tote box, preferably 12-18 inches in height, with a tight-fitting lid; a second tote or a tray that the first tote can fit into, with high enough walls to hold a few inches of drainage liquid (called “worm tea” – though I wouldn’t recommend drinking this); two bricks or wooden blocks; and a drill with a small drill bit (1/16th-1/8th inch).

To construct the bin, first drill some small holes in the bottom of the tote, separated by a few inches – 20 to 30 in total. If the tote is uneven along the bottom, make sure to drill at the lowest points. These will provide for drainage.

The lid of the bin needs to be tight-fitting, to protect the worms from bright sunlight and rain. In the lid, you need to drill around a dozen ventilation holes, a little larger than the drainage holes. Alternatively, you can cut a small (postcard sized) rectangular hole in the center of the lid using a utility knife, and attach a piece of screening (i.e. an old window screen). Glue generally doesn’t bond to this type of plastic, so my preferred method is to drill small holes along the outside of the ventilation hole and use plastic zip ties, string, or wire to tie the screening to the hole. This method is more complicated, but I believe it makes for better ventilation.

That’s basically it. You put the bricks or blocks into the tray and set the plastic tote on top of them, so it won’t be submerged in the tea. I used a second plastic bin, so the drainage holes would be protected from direct exposure. Now, it’s time to fill the bin.

First, line the bottom (of the main bin) with a few inches of high-carbon bedding material. This could be shredded paper or cardboard, peat moss, or shredded leaves – I used half newspaper and half leaves. You need to wet the bedding material enough that it absorbs water, so that it’s comfortable for the worms. On top of this, put a few shovelfuls of garden soil, just enough to cover the bedding. This introduces beneficial microbes to the bin, as well as non-biological, which aid in worm digestion. Finally, you add in your worms and some food (more on this below), and a piece of wet paper or cardboard across the top to keep the bedding and vermicompost from drying out.

Traditionally, the types of worms used in vermicomposting are red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) or red earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus), which thrive in high-organic-matter environments. It is possible to harvest these by hand, in dark, damp areas of your yard, where leaves and leaf mould cover the ground – but this is time consuming. Red wigglers can be purchased online, from many garden stores or even Amazon and EBay, or you can find a local vermicomposter in your area (Craigslist is a good place to start) who will be dividing their worm bin and would sell some to you. I got my red wigglers from a friend who vermicomposts.

Worm bins are capable of digesting most organic materials. Favorites include most vegetable and fruit wastes (with the exception of citrus and any plant in the onion family), coffee grounds with the filter, tea bags, and starchy leftovers (better used to grow the worm bin than the vermicomposter’s belly). Fat and oil, bone, dairy, and meat scraps can added as well, but should be a small portion of the total food input.

There is essentially no day-to-day maintenance of the worm bin. You should make sure the contents stay damp (not soaking, but not dry), and feed the bin only as fast as the food is digested. The first few weeks will be slow going – the worm population starts small, and it takes time for microbial populations to colonize the bin (and these are actually what the worms feed on).

The bin should be placed in a shady area – a basement, garage, or shed is good, or a cool, shady alcove outside. You don’t want it in direct sunlight, which makes the worms uncomfortable, and can heat the bin. The optimal temperature range is around 50 to 80 degrees, which means that special attention should be given on hot summer days. The worm bin must be put inside during the cold of the winter if you want the worms to survive (it doesn’t smell and is indiscriminate).

So why would an urban farmer want to go to the trouble of growing a box of worms?

Vermicomposting is faster than regular composting, and merely through their digestion, the red wigglers turn organic materials (and even ordinary topsoil) into worm castings – a valuable soil fertility amendment that is even better than compost. Castings should be extracted from the bin by moving the contents over to one side and filling the other with new bedding and feed. The worms will slowly migrate to the new organics, and the castings can be extracted.

The collected drainage (worm tea) is also a powerful liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and sprayed onto plants – this provides them with nutrients, and is known to enhance microbial activity in the topsoil.

And then, there are the worms themselves. After a few months, when the worm populations have skyrocketed, it is wise to begin extracting worms to keep their reproduction rates high (this is called maximum sustainable yield). These can be put into the garden or the compost, where they will continue to do their good.

They can also be used more directly in food production. Feeding them to backyard chickens or fish can offset feed costs, and make egg, chicken, and fish production more self-sufficient and sustainable. This is my ultimate plan for my system.

            Healthy worm bins have tens to hundreds of thousands of worms in them. Each red wiggler has around 2 Calories in it, and a laying chicken (for example) consumes around 400 Calories per day. That means that 50 worms could easily make up 25% of the hen’s diet (in addition to whatever other bugs she found herself) – if that’s not a huge step towards self-sufficiency, I don’t know what is.

 

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.