Author Archives: Ruth

Good Soil Biology – The Perfect Recipe For Plants

December 19, 2017sm-171119-big-nema-400x-worm-bin-tc_7

It’s time to honor our important volunteers who live in the soil – the nematodes, protozoa, microarthropods, fungi and bacteria. All these fellows work tirelessly underground, decomposing organic matter and pooping out the nutrients in the form that plants can use.

In fact, organic matter is the only food we have supplied for the orchard trees and shrubs over the last six years. And, now that we are using the thermal compost process (see Nov. 2017 blog), we will be regularly cooking up tasty treats our plants enjoy.

rc-plant-succession-slide-elaine-ingham-life-in-the-soil-oxford-keynote-2014Plants put out sugars in their root zones to attract the critters they most desire. Early succession plants, like weeds, desire soil with more bacteria (see Ingham slide). Late succession plants, such as deciduous and conifer trees, prefer fungal dominated soils.

When we make our compost, the types of inputs we use will determine whether the compost will also be bacterial or fungal dominated.

How do we test the characteristics of our compost? We can put the finished product under the microscope and actually count how many bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes we have and then convert the counts to biomass.

Sun, Dec 31, 2-4, Roof Work Party
Sun, Jan 21, 2-4, Work Party
Sat, Feb 17, 1-3, Pruning Class

Dr Elaine Ingham offers very accessible online classes in soil biology, making compost, compost tea the-soil-food-web-nrcs142p2_049822and using microscopes to test soil life. She discounts classes at various times of the year. If you take these classes, you will learn how to be a good land steward (see Ingham’s soil food web slide).

You won’t remember but, when seed plants arrived over 360 million years ago, good soil biology was already in place. Plants know what they need from the soil and how to get it. We can all play a part to improve soil quality by minimizing soil compaction and avoiding use of inorganic fertilizers. The importance of soil is the subject of this recent article from the New York Times.

Ruth

Hot! Hot! Hot!

November 6, 2017

Last week, three of us poured our energy into designing a proper thermal compost pile. Today was the critical third day after the initial turning of the pile. Did the center stay above 131 degrees F? Drum roll. Both thermometers read 155. We did it!

A proper thermal compost includes the following procedures:

All parts of the compost must have adequate moisture and reach threshold temperatures,
either:
160 F for one day
150 F for two days, or
131 F for three days.

These temperature requirements are necessary to kill human and plant pathogens, insect pests, and weed seeds. If your pile does not heat up or, it does not heat after turning, the problem is often due to lack of nitrogen in the recipe and/or the pile cooling down too much from turning.

During our first try last May, the pile did not heat up enough after we laboriously turned the insides to the outsides and the outside materials to the inside with garden forks. What an effort. No wonder no one turns a compost pile.

the-turn-w-steam-20171103_091219_hdrWe came up with a new trick this time and it worked. Welcome to the stage … mesh onion bags!

Kate and Ruth carefully mixed all of the ingredients and then stuffed them in the red bags. The bags that would be in the hot center of the pile were laid inside the chicken wire frame standing straight up. In contrast, the other half of the bags, those that filled the cooler perimeter, were laid in horizontally. From the bag orientation, we could tell which compost had been in the hot center and which had not.

Sun, Nov 19, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Dec 17, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Jan 21, 2-4, Work Party

The center bags heated up in no time and remained at 150 F for two days. Time to turn the pile. All the bags surrounding those hot bags went to the middle of the pile and the hot bags came out to surround those new center bags. The turn took two volunteers 10 minutes and was not the least bit backbreaking.

What we accomplished:watering-after-turn-sm-20171103_091801_hdr
1) the surety that all parts of the compost heated up adequately,
2) only one turn was necessary, and
3) anyone could help turn the compost pile without needing to be strong as an ox.

The whole process took seven days. Now the pile will cool to ambient temperature and evolve over the next several months. We will make good use of the finished compost next spring.

tarp-is-last-sm-20171103_092558_hdrHow can we improve upon our new idea? We would like to work with bags made from natural material instead of polypropylene. Let us know if you have an idea.

Ruth

A Nod For Natives

October 16, 2017

These days I hang out with volunteers of the Washington Native Plant Society (WNPS). I don’t tend to say much. I know my place (right field).

These are pleasant knowledgeable folks and I am learning a lot. One member coaxed me to sign sm-greenhouse-wp_20171014_012up for a native plant propagation class at Oxbox Farm last Saturday. It was fantastic. Bridget McNassar is a trained teacher and has been working in their nursery for five years. The nursery is pristine. I asked if I needed to take my shoes off. Check out those hanging hoses.

She covered seed collecting, cleaning and sm-oregon-sunshine-seeds-wp_20171014_005storage and showed us when a seed head is ready for collection. In the photo she collects seeds from the flowering Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum).

We reviewed germination, including the issue of dormancy, and Bridget graciously provided us with Swordfern spores to take home. In the photo, she is patching out. She takes a fern that has emerged and sm-patching-wp_20171014_008plucks it out and pushes it into a bare area of the same medium (bark and compost).

Sun, Nov 19, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Dec 17, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Jan 21, 2-4, Work Party

She offered several types of seeds for us to take and gave us the link to the website Native Plant Propagation Protocol Database so we could look up how many days we had to keep some of our seeds in the refrigerator (cold stratification) before we tried to sow them. Salal needs 42-100 cold days so I will put the seeds in the refrigerator in mid-winter for spring planting.

The class size was small so questions were answered, either by Bridget or by a high school boy scout quite familiar with the Latin names of plants!

Tips from Bridget:

A seed is not mature if you can dent it with your fingernail
Consider a food processor with a plastic dull “blade” to separate pulp from seed for fleshy fruit
A good way to scarify seeds is to rub them between two sanding blocks
Simple cotton bags work well to dry seeds
Make sure seeds are dry and cold for storage
The 6 mil plastic zip lock bags don’t let gases through in the refrigerator
Be patient! Trillium can take three years

There are still two sessions left of this class – Saturday October 21 and October 28

You can use your phone to start your native wildflower education. Those hard-working people at the Burke Museum have a smartphone app at  https://www.pnwflowers.com/app

Help is with our own native plant area at the south end of the orchard at the next work party. We just acquired a Scouler’s Willow (Salix scouleriana), the most drought tolerant of the natives.

Ruth