Hotbeds for cold times: Start seeds the old-fashioned way

Starting your own garden veggies from seed can save money, and open a much wider and more exciting vista of possibilities.  One way to give your baby plants a head start for spring is with a Hotbed.

First, some vocabulary:

Cold Frame: A simple low-slung structure to enclose garden beds and/or flats of seedlings under a glass or plastic top.  Like a tiny unheated greenhouse.

simple

simple

simpler

simpler

simplest

simplest

Hotbed: A cold frame with a source of heat to warm the soil and/or flats of seedlings from below.  Keeps things warmer than a cold frame.  Can be heated with an electric heating cable in sand, or by decomposing organic matter - a kind of 'slow burn' composting method tailored to produce gentle heat over a long period.

I helped make this hotbed at a past educational farming gig with my lovely cofarmer Emily (above, cackling in triumph).  It provided the very first ever round of vegetable starts in the spring of 2014, and now just look how that farm has grown!

I helped make this hotbed at a past educational farming gig with my lovely cofarmer Emily (above, cackling in triumph).  It provided the very first ever round of vegetable starts in the spring of 2014, and now just look how that farm has grown!

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In the 1800s before modern shipping, lettuce was profitably produced at scale in the winter months in France and New England using hotbeds heated with horse manure.  Wealthy population centers supported large operations that produced 40 heads of lettuce per 6'x3' bed.

The "hot" material -- usually spent fresh horse stable bedding -- can be packed into a pit (most common in the old production scale model) or packed into a raised frame (see above).


Build a hotbed

Here's a handy diagram from the much-loved Gene Logsdon, click the image to see his complete post on the subject.

Here's a handy diagram from the much-loved Gene Logsdon, click the image to see his complete post on the subject.

There are, of course, many resources on the web with different anecdotes and plans for hotbeds.  In this age it's easy to click around and see a variety of pictures and opinions, so here I'll lay out some important fundamentals to keep in mind.

  • Use fresh manure.  Ideally, you can find a source of freshly removed muck from a horse stable.  "aged manure" will not do.  Likewise pure manure will not do.  The mix of manure to carbon (sawdust, hay, or straw bedding etc) is pretty forgiving, but with too much nitrogen (as in the case of pure manure) there will likely be too much ammonia produce, it can overwhelm the layer of finished compost or soil and scorch the seedlings.
  • Compact your "hot mix" as much as possible and water it thoroughly!  Stomp and spray the mix periodically as you add.  Unlike regular thermal composting, we aim to exclude oxygen from the manure/bedding, so smash out that air and fill all the pore space up with water.  This makes for a slower longer thermal period.  Use at least 2 feet of hot mix, more is fine and will probably make heat for longer.
  • Don't forget a 6" layer of finished compost or rich soil above the "hot mix" this is critical because it hosts organisms that will consume the ammonia gas generated by the "slow burn" of the manure/bedding.  It can be planted directly as in the case of 1800s lettuce producers, but it is still necessary if you're growing seedlings in flats.
  • On cold nights throw an extra layer of insulation over the transparent lid.  When the sun is not shining, this will really improve heat holding.  A blanket, tarp, or even a second layer of plastic makes a huge difference because of the air gap formed between it and the lid.
  • Lay a few boards or stakes to prop up flats so that seedling roots won't grow through the bottoms into the soil/compost top layer.  Alternatively, I've scooted the flats a few inches every two days or so to disturb those roots.  I feel like this makes a bushier root system inside the flat.
  • Orient the face of the lid towards the south (if you're residing in the northern hemisphere)
  • Square bales of straw or hay make great insulation, they can line the outside of your hot mix:
  • Finally, here's a pro tip that I haven't seen on too many other sites: This thermometer is fantastic.  It has two probes and saves the low and high daily temperature over a ten day period so you can know exactly how much heat your hotbed holds relative to the outside overnight low.
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 Timing is important, a horse manure powered hotbed will make heat for about two months.  And it'll take about 4 days to heat up after it's made.  This is good timing for most veggie seedlings as they will need about 2 months of coddling before going into the ground.  

One final word: a hotbed can overheat in sunny weather, especially on warm spring days.  It's critical to crack the lid on sunny mornings.

Cheers, and if you do try this at home, let us know how it goes!

ACRES Conference: Themes from the Cutting Edge of Eco-Agriculture

ACRES USA was supporting the organic movement before "organic" was a buzzword.  Over forty years ago ACRES started publishing books and their monthly magazine and hosting gatherings to support the budding new field of natural farming.  Now they are a pillar of the movement, and we attended their annual flagship event, "Eco-Ag 2016," which was hosted last week in Omaha.

Dozens of speakers laid out the stories from their farms, research, and lives in the movement.  We attendees felt at once energized and exhausted as we left the three-day event, ready to put inspiration into action.  The diversity of topics ranged from commercial-scale chicken houses that utilize adjacent paddocks for chickens to forage under hazelnut orchards, to conventional cropping - managing weeds and fertility with cover crops and livestock, to personal stories from leaders like Grace Gurshuny who was involved in the early organic movement and then criticized by her peers when she worked on consolidating regulations that would allow USDA Organic certification to exits.  

Through all the divergent topics, two themes kept showing up again and again.  Soil Microbes and Soil Organic Matter.  These are the sexiest things in farming today.  Soil microbes are bread and butter to this blog, so I was satisfied to hear again and again acknowledgment to bacteria, fungi, and their predators from nearly every researcher and farmer at the lectern.  These organic farmers are proud and humbled by the power of microbiology.  Often their innovation in cropping and livestock management is viewed with skepticism by neighbors and extension, when the seemingly impossible proves true one thing is always the same: a thriving soil food web has colonized the soil.  I was pleased to hear so many successful farmers testifying to the power of biology.

Soil organic matter (SOM) has been known since early soil science as a powerful indicator of soil health.  "Humus" is another catch-all term for this carbon-based component of soil.  When some speaker, scientist, or salesman at the tradeshow wanted to show some data that proved their soil was regenerating, they went straight for soil organic matter.  Everyone knows that soil with 5% SOM or greater is wholly a different material all together than the soil most crops must grow in.  When someone shares a result that shows a steady increase in SOM over the course of years, growers start to salivate.

These take-homes are very validating of our work here at Soil Dynamics.  A healthy compost, like the compost that we carefully produce, is an ecosystem swarming with the soil microbes that inhabit any healthy soil, on top of that, compost itself is humus - almost completely organic matter.  For the home gardener a few yards of compost will bump small vegetable beds over the 5% SOM mark and lay the foundation for robust, nutrient dense plants.

There's always more to learn, it's the classic case that the more I learn about soil, the more questions I have.  But when we forget about the why's, the fact remains that our healthy soils are full of humus and microbes.  So with that we can keep calm and carry on planning our gardens for 2017.

Simplest Home Compost

Short, sweet, and to the point.  Seize the fall season and make this composter today.  Before the how, let's look at the why.

Why compost at home?  Because it's easy.  Sure I can go down the rabbit hole of compost science and try to optimize everything for fast results, but in my backyard I can go slow and keep it simple and pretty hands-off. 

Why compost at home?  Because it's healthy.  Healthy for my soil, my garden, the ecosystem of my yard.  Compost promotes life, this fosters human health in turn.

Why compost at home? Because it's nice.  Nice smelling, nice to my back, nice to watch over time.  Smelly heavy garbage that disappears every week leaving a stinking can behind is not really nice, but most of us just accept it.  By diverting food waste from the garbage can, my trash doesn't have to stink and be so heavy.  Also I get to see my kitchen scraps slowly transform into black gold.

What else is there to say?  If you're inclined to try composting at home, now's the time!  Ease is king, fall is here and there is no easier time to get brown fall leaves.  Plenty of dry leaves keeps a pile smelling fresh instead of foul.  

Water is important, for a good start, you can spray down the initial load of leaves, through rain and the high moisture of kitchen scraps this kind of pile usually takes care of itself as far as water.

When adding new scraps, mix them into the existing material and cover them up.  This keeps down insects and when half-way composted stuff is smeared on the new scraps it can discourage animals from being interested.

Over time the leaves settle quite a lot, take action now to keep your leaf stash flush.  When you need fresh leaves, just crack open one of the bags that your neighbors conveniently put on the curb for pickup and top off the bin.  Don't worry if they're a little musty or dusty later in the year.

This kind of pile trades speed of composting for savings in effort.  Keep adding to the pile until it stops settling after adding new leaves and there's no more room for leaves to balance out the kitchen scraps.  For a normal household, this should take a whole year.  So if you start now, this time next year you can stop adding to your pile and start a new one.  Once you make your last deposit in the compost bank, it's important to let you pile age for several months.  So that pile I just started today (in the video) should hold a year of my kitchen waste, then I'll use the compost in April and May of 2018.  I think that long-term thinking is an expression of love for my home.

The most important think about starting a compost pile at home is that you give it a try.  There's plenty of great info out there in the internet, I hope that this quick note encourages a few people to go out and save up their leaves to start their first compost pile.

Wonders of Living Soil

This is a blog post about how rocks turn into people.

Soil doesn't get the attention it deserves.  We mostly take it for granted or curse it when it hitches a ride on our shoes into our houses.  But soil is of course critical for our food supply, it's also the filter that creates clean rivers, soil is beneath any beautiful landscape, and soil is worthy of our admiration for being the most complex ecosystem on the planet.  Indeed, soil is the antecedent for life on land as we know it.

The earth's crust is rock, rock full of the building blocks of life, but rock nonetheless.  Soil is that thin gateway that transforms rock into things like lawns, bees, dogs, beautiful flowers, wooden chairs (trees) and of course humans.  So how do elements from the earth's crust, aka rock, turn into a person?

It's the soil food web that ushers the humble phosphorus atom from a grain of silt up through the food chain and ultimately into a strand of your lovely DNA.  

"But wait!" you say, "Where's the rock in this diagram, isn't this a blog about rocks turning into humans?"

You're right, this diagram is dramatically simplified.  Aside from the omission of rock as the original source for all the mineral elements of life, we don't have arrowheads pointing back to plants from every single organism group to represent the plant-available nutrients they are excreting.  OK pooping, this is the Soil Dynamics blog, we handle all the poop from both zoos in the area, so we might as well call it what it is.  Even protozoa poop, in their small and humble way, but it definitely adds up.

You should mentally place rock along side "organic matter" in the diagram.  Bacteria and fungi have been perfecting their rock-eating for 4 billion and 1.8 billion years respectively.  They are so good at mining the necessary minerals from rock that nobody else in the food web has bothered to evolve mechanisms to cut out the middle-men.  In other words, bacteria and fungi work tirelessly to turn rocks into their own organic bodies, and all the thanks they get is to become the potato chip of the soil world.  Everybody eats them, from one-celled protozoa, to earthworms, to beetles.  Even chickens will scratch around in soil and eat visible fungus... not to mention, well mushrooms are delicious.  This process of nutrients flowing around in a food web is called nutrient cycling.

"OK, this is even worse, there's no pictures AND no rocks on this diagram!" you might be thinking.  Sorry about that, but hang on!  Top left see 'nutrients from mineral',  mineral means rock there.   When an atom of phosphorus or sulfur or molybdenum is so inextricably bound up in the mineral lattice of a grain of sand that all seems lost, you better believe that some needy bacteria or fungi has the tools to chew it out of there.  When that bacteria or fungi is eaten by a nematode near the root of your tomato plant, most of the time that nematode has enough phosphorus, sulfur, or molybdenum.  So that nutrient goes right through the nematode, out its back end in a plant-available form, so it can go into the tomato plant root.  Then into you.  Rock becomes human.

Well there you have it.  Humans are made of rocks.  And water.  And air because bacteria are able to munch nitrogen gas from the atmosphere when they need more nitrogen to build proteins. By adding compost to soil, you are adding useful organic matter that our microbe allies can mine for nutrient and energy.  Also, well made compost contains a thriving ecosystem of soil microbes and it doesn't harm existing beneficial microbes in the soil when used as an amendment. 

But there is an alternative to a healthy soil food web and the choice is yours whether you have a lawn, 10,000 acres of rangeland or cornfield, or a houseplant.  Chemical fertilizer is concentrated plant-available forms of nutrient, extracted by energy intensive processes from air or rock or petroleum.  This shortcut to soil fertility produces immediate results when you're looking for a green lawn, but it also produces immediate and devastating results when you're looking for that abundant population of earthworms, fungi, amoebae etc..  Chemical fertilizer is salt-based, and our microscopic allies are very much like slugs.  You do the math.  Once the soil microbes are crippled, soil is addicted to regular inputs of soluble fertilizer.  Plants living in a thriving soil ecosystem get balanced constant nutrition, so they are less susceptible to pest and disease.  Pests and disease attack and damage chemically fertilized plants more dramatically, so pesticides are the quick fix...  Addiction mode.

Soil Dynamics manufacturing compost

Soil Dynamics manufacturing compost

An amonium nitrate plant manufacturing fertilizer

An amonium nitrate plant manufacturing fertilizer

On a subject as complex as soil ecology, there is always more to say.  I hope this post has been interesting.  Many soils are damaged, and many of our readers would like to reestablish a thriving soil ecosystem in their lawn or garden.   That said, fertilizers of all stripes can be used more or less responsibly, make sure to always follow application rates.  The worst of the results that powerful chemicals are capable of can be avoided by following directions!.  As we publish more blogs, we'll have to link them here.  I'd say we owe a "how to manage a thick lawn without inorganic fertilizer and herbicide" post.  But in the mean time, feel free to comment here or on our facebook page, share your best tips for landscaping and gardening.

Meet the Machines

I am a real nerd when it comes to compost.  During 8 months working at a research farm in California I spent hundreds of hours between counting microscopic creatures, formulating compost recipes, and turning piles by hand.  I developed an awe for the microscopic world: busy, complex, and varied, landscapes hidden in smallness.

Now I work at Soil Dynamics.  We do not turn piles by hand.  We do not measure our compost ingredients in 5 gallon buckets, but instead in loader buckets - 5 yards each.  I am now 300-1000 times more time-efficient when I turn compost.  The landscape that captures my awe now is one of magnitude.  Massive, powerful, and surprisingly precise: these are the machines that we rely on at Soil Dynamics.

Tractor, Turner, and Water Wagon.  This lets us turn about 300 yards of compost in just a few minutes.  The water wagon holds 1700 gallons of water that spray from nozzles just above the turner blades so that the compost is evenly moistened when necessary..

Tractor, Turner, and Water Wagon.  This lets us turn about 300 yards of compost in just a few minutes.  The water wagon holds 1700 gallons of water that spray from nozzles just above the turner blades so that the compost is evenly moistened when necessary..

In its natural habitat, this shepherd of compost sleeps with the flock.  Piles are 12 feet wide by up to 300 feet long.  That's as much as 400 yards per "windrow".

In its natural habitat, this shepherd of compost sleeps with the flock.  Piles are 12 feet wide by up to 300 feet long.  That's as much as 400 yards per "windrow".

Here's one of two loaders that we rely on.  To move lots of material, obviously this does the trick.  But I was amazed at Alonso's dexterity with this behemoth while we were building a wall out of concrete blocks (like in the background of this image).  I hooked chains to the blocks, then Alonso would lift and place them.  He could set the block, then nudge the block half an inch into the perfect position.  It reminded me of an elephant shelling a peanut.

Here's one of two loaders that we rely on.  To move lots of material, obviously this does the trick.  But I was amazed at Alonso's dexterity with this behemoth while we were building a wall out of concrete blocks (like in the background of this image).  I hooked chains to the blocks, then Alonso would lift and place them.  He could set the block, then nudge the block half an inch into the perfect position.  It reminded me of an elephant shelling a peanut.

Meet the tub grinder.  At the bottom inside that round tub this machine has a cylinder spiked with "teeth," fist sized hunks of steel that punch apart any thing in the tub.  Logs, stumps, root balls, occasional rocks no doubt -- it all gets pounded into bits small enough to fit through whatever size screen is installed under the blade.  This machine turns trees into mulch.  It's why mulch has that frayed texture compared to wood chips.

Meet the tub grinder.  At the bottom inside that round tub this machine has a cylinder spiked with "teeth," fist sized hunks of steel that punch apart any thing in the tub.  Logs, stumps, root balls, occasional rocks no doubt -- it all gets pounded into bits small enough to fit through whatever size screen is installed under the blade.  This machine turns trees into mulch.  It's why mulch has that frayed texture compared to wood chips.

The screener, this was featured in our most recent newsletter, so maybe you saw it there.  This machine accepts loads of material into a hopper (left in photo) and then pushes it onto a gently sloped rotating screen (right).  A conveyor catches screened fines from under the screen, and chunky material that cannot pass through the screen falls onto a different conveyor.  Both fractions are carries in opposite directions, off and up forming two large mountains of material. (see next photo)

The screener, this was featured in our most recent newsletter, so maybe you saw it there.  This machine accepts loads of material into a hopper (left in photo) and then pushes it onto a gently sloped rotating screen (right).  A conveyor catches screened fines from under the screen, and chunky material that cannot pass through the screen falls onto a different conveyor.  Both fractions are carries in opposite directions, off and up forming two large mountains of material. (see next photo)

Many horsepower makes light work, that's the old saying right?

Many horsepower makes light work, that's the old saying right?

Behold the side-dump.  This dump trailer holds 25 yards, the largest unit of material that comes or goes from the compost farm*.  It's the way we interact with the world at large, as well as a small fleet of familiar looking garbage trucks that haul yard waste and food waste.  A smaller regular looking truck can deliver more modest loads of compost, mulch or topsoil for retail clients. *with one exception, the "live bottom" looks like a regular big-rig, it holds up to 100 yards, but only fills all the way up with mulch.  Anything else would be too heavy.

Behold the side-dump.  This dump trailer holds 25 yards, the largest unit of material that comes or goes from the compost farm*.  It's the way we interact with the world at large, as well as a small fleet of familiar looking garbage trucks that haul yard waste and food waste.  A smaller regular looking truck can deliver more modest loads of compost, mulch or topsoil for retail clients.

*with one exception, the "live bottom" looks like a regular big-rig, it holds up to 100 yards, but only fills all the way up with mulch.  Anything else would be too heavy.

Last but not least (except in size) the skid-steer.  This is a familiar one, it can zip around, carry modest loads, it can hold a fork lift or a bucket, I use it to shave off the edges of windrows if they're too wide.  It has the most variety of uses, like a swiss army knife.

Last but not least (except in size) the skid-steer.  This is a familiar one, it can zip around, carry modest loads, it can hold a fork lift or a bucket, I use it to shave off the edges of windrows if they're too wide.  It has the most variety of uses, like a swiss army knife.

We hope you enjoyed a little glimpse behind the scenes.  Some of my coworkers have worked with machinery in oilfields, I have mostly worked in educational gardening!  Never with machinery until now.  We all know that humans have the power to shape the world, but I've never understood it up close.  I'm glad that we at Soil Dynamics put all this horsepower to good use.  

All we do is recycle.  Everything we haul away from clients to the compost farm is unwanted material, and everything we deliver to clients is transformed into a valuable product to beautify our landscapes and improve environmental quality.

-Ben Samuelson

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