Mini farming self-sufficiency on 1/4 acre pdf

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Markham, Brett L. Mini farming: self sufficiency on 1/4 acre / Brett L. Markham. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre Start a mini farm on a quarter acre or less, provide 85 percent of the food for a family of four and earn an income. [Ebook PDF] Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre FOR DOWNLOAD FREE:

Aeration is important because thermophilic composting is aerobic, requiring oxygen. I would also like to thank my daughter, Hannah, a child of endless joy and keen insight whose well-being inspired me to develop the ideas and conclusions in this work. Organic matter includes leftovers from the table, crop debris, grass clippings, leaves raked in the fall, and animal manure. Moreover, well-orchestrated timing allows harvests to be timed either to allow a little at a time to be harvested for daily use or marketing—which is useful for crops like lettuce—or to allow multiple large harvests for the purpose of preservation and storage. True or full trenching is serious work, but it is appropriate for regenerating soil in beds that have been previously double-dug or where the soil can be worked deeply without using a backhoe. As a result, it is subject to laws of nature that we humans are only beginning to understand. The typical foot row takes up at least square feet of space.

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Since each block is eighteen inches long, a pickup-sized load gives only 33 linear feet. Boards made from recycled plastic used for decks and other outdoor structures have become more available in recent years and combine the assets of the easy handling of traditional lumber with the durability of concrete block.

For a mini-farm, save expense by buying the plastic boards at the lumber store and cutting them to the right size yourself. It is true that more modern pressure-treated lumber uses less toxic components than it used to, but the components are still toxic, and they can leach into the soil of the growing bed, so they are best avoided.

Raised beds can be made from a variety of materials. This one is made with cinder blocks and landscape timbers. Many other materials can be used, ranging from landscaping timbers to poured concrete forms. Just let imagination, cost, durability, and the potential toxicity of anything you might use guide the decision. Keep in mind that using materials that leach poisons into the growing beds completely defeats the purpose of the home garden or mini-farm because consuming the products grown in those beds can be extremely hazardous.

The arsenic in pressuretreated wood, for example, is both directly toxic and highly carcinogenic. Shape and Orientation of Raised Beds The most common and useful shape for raised beds is rectangular. Certain planters for flowers are circular, and this works fine as long as the diameter is not so great that the gardener has to step into the bed. Another common shape is a 4-foot square.

This works well for casual vegetable-only gardening on a small scale, but at the scale of providing all the needs of a family, it becomes wasteful of space and material. I recommend a rectangular shape because it makes maximum use of space and minimal material while making it easy to add standardized structures like hoop houses. Any rectangular bed is going to be longer than it is wide. To give maximum sun to crops and avoid shading, ensure that the long sides face north and south.

Any trellising for vining crops should be established along the north edge to get the advantage of sunshine without shading other crops.

Size of Raised Beds: Width Everyone has an opinion on the proper size of raised beds. Square Foot enthusiasts advocate a maximum width of 4 feet, because it is easy to reach into a bed that is 4 feet wide from either side and get to whatever is in the middle.

Many experienced organic farmers use even narrower raised beds. The five-foot width advocated by Ecology Action requires, for many people, stepping into the bed onto a board intended to more widely distribute the weight and minimize damage to the soil structure. But stepping into the garden bed at all, even using a board, defeats the purpose of careful management of the soil structure by compacting the soil. This would be impossible using the complete Grow Biointensive method since, in that method, the raised beds are only mounded soil without structural sides.

My method uses structural sides instead. The 4-foot width is narrow enough that most people can reach into the garden from both sides since only a 2-foot reach is needed. This will not work, however, when trellised crops that grow food on both sides of the trellis are grown against one of the long sides of the bed.

My wife and I did this with a 4-foot-wide bed one year, and watching my wife balance on one of the frame boards while reaching for the beans with one hand and holding on to me with the other was a sure sign that I would need to make some changes the following year!

They should be three to three and a half feet wide otherwise. Length We already know that beds need to be rectangular for economic reasons and three to four feet wide for convenience—but how long can they be?

Technically, they can be as long as the farmer wants, but there are some aspects of length worth considering. One of the biggest causes of insect and disease problems is growing the same plants in the same space year after year. Insect pests some of which spread diseases are quite similar.

They have a particular appetite—a particular niche—such as cabbage. Such pests not only eat cabbage and infect it with diseases but also lay their eggs in the soil around the cabbage so that their offspring will emerge right next to their favorite food. Limiting the length of raised beds so that you have more room to create several of them makes it easy to practice crop rotation because the soil in one bed is isolated from the soil in the others.

In my own mini-farm, beds range in length from 8 to 24 feet. Start at the Right Time and Grow Slowly The time between when the soil can first be worked in the spring and when the early spring crops need to be planted is about three weeks. This is simply not enough time to create enough raised beds. Ultimately, for total food self-sufficiency, you will need about square feet per person.

That will require a lot of beds. The number will depend on the length you choose. In practice, depending on dietary preferences, chosen crop varieties, climate, and other factors, a larger or smaller number of beds could actually be used. Raised beds can be created in a number of ways, but even the most time-efficient methods will take a few hours per bed. If you have limited time, getting all the beds made in spring will be physically impossible.

Therefore the best time to embark upon mini-farming is the summer or fall before the first growing season. This way the beds can be prepared in a more leisurely fashion and then sowed with cover crops for overwintering.

In the spring, you only have to cut the cover crops and put them into the compost pile, cultivate existing beds, and start planting. Cover crops are explained in the next chapter. This is because of the trade-off between time and money. But if time is lacking, the only way to shortcut the system is to pay for heavy equipment and truckloads of compost. It is always better to start than to delay because even just a couple of raised beds can produce a lot of food. Creating the Beds For reasons of economy and productivity, I recommend creating the beds initially by double-digging.

Lay out the area to be dug using stakes and string, then once it is dug, surround that area with the material you have chosen to create the box for the bed. Because the process of double-digging will loosen the soil, the level of the dug area will be between four and six inches higher than the surrounding soil. Double-digging has been a standard agricultural practice for soil improvement in various places around the world for untold generations, and it is what I recommend because it is the most effective for the money required.

The idea behind double-digging is that plants send their roots deeply into the soil, and making sure there are nutrients and aerated soil two feet deep provides ideal growing conditions. Up where I live in New Hampshire, any attempt at digging, no matter how modest, can be difficult because of the large number of rocks encountered. Did you ever wonder where all those picturesque rock walls in New England came from? Yep—they came from farmers getting rocks out of their fields.

My grandfather never double-dug anything but his asparagus beds. Nevertheless, the asparagus grown in a double-dug bed was far superior to any other. But in spite of the fact that six inches of perfectly prepared soil can be adequate, there can be no doubt that two feet of soil will necessarily hold a greater reservoir of nutrients and water.

There are actually three ways of digging the beds. Digging Methods The old-timers where I grew up never used the term doubledigging. All three types of trenching are brutally hard work, particularly in areas with a lot of large rocks or with soils composed mainly of clay, but they offer benefits worth the effort. These three types of trenching are plain digging, bastard trenching, and trenching. Plain digging relies on using a garden spade to dig into and turn over the soil to the depth of a single spade.

The area to be dug is laid out using string or other marking, and a garden spade is used to remove the soil one-spade wide and a single-spade deep across the width of the bed, and that soil is placed into a wheelbarrow. Then a couple of inches of compost is added to the bottom of the first trench, and the soil from the next parallel trench is added on top of the compost in the first trench.

This process continues until the last trench is dug and compost added to the bottom, and then the soil saved from the first trench is added to the hole left by the last trench. The only difference between plain digging and double-digging a. Finally, more compost is added on top and mixed with the top six inches of soil. It is extremely useful in either case, where the land to be used for farming was previously weeds or lawn, to sift through the soil to remove wireworms and grubs as you go along.

When I use either of these trenching methods, I not only put compost in the bottom of the trenches but add some across the top of the finished bed and mix it in as well. The garden fork and digging spade are indispensable tools for double-digging. True or full trenching is serious work, but it is appropriate for regenerating soil in beds that have been previously double-dug or where the soil can be worked deeply without using a backhoe. A properly maintained bed should never need regeneration, but true trenching can be useful when dealing with land that was previously overfarmed using conventional methods since it exchanges the subsoil with the top soil.

In true trenching, the first trench is dug a single-spade deep and the soil from that set aside, and then the same trench is dug another spade deep and that soil is set aside as well, separately from the soil from the top of the trench.

Then a digging fork is used to break up the soil in the bottom as deep as the tines will go, and compost is added. When the second adjacent trench is dug, the spits from the top are added to the bottom of the first trench, then the spits from the bottom are added to the top of that.

In this way, the topsoil is buried, and the subsoil is brought to the top. Continue in this way until the last trench is dug, at which time the top spits from the first trench are put into the bottom of the last trench, and then those spits are topped with those that remain. Because true trenching exchanges the topsoil with the subsoil, and subsoil tends to have far less organic matter, generous amounts of aged compost should be added to the top layer, worked in thoroughly, and allowed to sit for a couple of weeks before putting the new bed to use.

In any of the three trenching methods, you will be using hand tools to move, literally, thousands of pounds of soil for each bed. This can be grueling work, and you should always use spades and digging forks that have been either bought or modified to accommodate your height. The correct height of a spade or fork plus handle can be judged by standing the tool vertically next to you, then seeing how high it reaches on your body. The top of the handle should fall somewhere between your elbow and the middle of your breastbone.

When using the tools, keep your back straight, and avoid both twisting and jerky movements. Work at a comfortable pace, and take breaks when needed. This way you get an excellent and safe aerobic workout that improves your strength and flexibility while improving the soil. In my experience, I have found nothing that competes, in terms of sheer productivity, with properly double-dug raised beds.

However, this can be a lot of work, and folks without a lot of time or with physical disabilities might not want to undertake the effort. Illustrated Double-Dig Every year I expand my mini-farm a little by adding a few raised beds. In the spring of , I added a few beds and had my wife take pictures of the process so I could include them for your reference. Mark off the area to be dug.

In my case, I just laid out the boards where I would be digging. Notice a completed bed in the foreground and boards marking where the new bed will be in the background. Dig the first row across the width of the bed onespade deep, and put the dirt from that row in a wheelbarrow.

Loosen the soil in the bottom of the trench with a digging fork. Add compost to the bottom of the trench.

Farming 1/4 mini acre on pdf self-sufficiency

Dig the second trench parallel and adjacent to the first one. Because, in this instance, I am digging an area that was covered with grass, I turn the spits from the second trench upside down in the first trench. Boards are used to mark off the new bed.

You could just as easily use string or chalk. First row dug. Loosening the soil. Adding compost. Digging the second trench.

Putting spits in the trench upside down. Working compost into the top few inches of the new bed. Work some additional compost into the top few inches of the finished bed. As you can see from the photo tutorial, preparing raised beds by double-digging is a pretty straightforward and very physical process. It is great exercise and loosens the soil to a depth of two feet, placing organic material throughout the entire depth.

The yields from beds that I work like this are phenomenal! Save up old newspapers—just the black-andwhite portions, not the glossy parts. Lay down the newspaper several layers thick, and then fill the bed completely with finished compost.

When spring rolls around and the ground thaws, just use the digging fork to fluff it up a little; then plant, and you are done.

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1 4 Acre

For no-dig beds it is particularly important to keep them planted with cover crops when fallow during the off-season because you are depending on the action of plant roots to mix the soil and keep it loose. In all other respects, you can treat this just like a regular raised bed. If fresh compost is added yearly, after three years the productivity will be the same as for a double-dug bed. Trellising for Raised Beds: Flexible Trellising System Trellises are necessary for certain crops and can be a valuable adjunct for others.

Many crops are more productive in vining versions than bush versions. This includes beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and more. Pole beans, for example, can yield almost twice as much product per square foot as bush beans. This means that a row of pole beans grown on a trellis along the north side of an 8-foot bed using only 8 square feet of space can produce nearly as many beans as 16 square feet of bush beans. This same calculation applies to other vegetables.

Electrical conduit makes a sturdy and versatile trellis. As mentioned earlier in the chapter, beds will ideally be located with the long sides facing north and south. Trellises should be established on the north side.

In the past few years, my preferred method of trellising uses rebar, electrical conduit, and conduit fittings. Electrical conduit comes in lengths 10 feet long. By cutting it to strategic lengths and using appropriate fittings, you can vary its height and length. By fitting it over rebar driven into the ground, you can lift it off the rebar easily in the fall for storage, and moving it to a different bed is a snap. Because lumber used to create the beds is eight feet long, the longest you need the conduit to be is eight feet.

This is for the horizontal piece on top. Meanwhile, trellis heights can range all the way from two feet for peas to four feet for tomatoes to even six feet for pole beans. The easy way to get a flexible system is to buy foot lengths of conduit six pieces at a time. Three are cut into an 8-foot and a 2foot piece, two are cut into a 6-foot and a 4-foot piece, and the final length of conduit is cut into two 4-foot pieces and one 2-foot piece.

When done, you have three 8-foot horizontals, two 6-foot verticals, four 4-foot verticals, and four 2-foot verticals. In addition to these, for every six pieces of conduit, you will need six degree elbows, four screw couplings, and six pieces of 2-foot rebar. You can find rebar already cut to length and bundled at Home Depot and similar stores.

Once the rebar is hammered into the ground on either end of the beds, you can completely assemble or disassemble a trellis of any height from 2-foot to 8-foot in two-foot increments using only a screwdriver. Complete Trellis Creation, Step-by-Step 1. Hammer 2-foot pieces of rebar into the ground at either end of the raised bed, leaving 6 inches protruding above the ground. Driving the rebar into the ground. Placing an upright over the rebar.

Attaching the horizontal to the bend. Run string between the horizontal and the deck screws. Slip your vertical piece of conduit over the rebar. Repeat for the other side. Attach a degree elbow to each vertical piece of conduit, and then secure the horizontal conduit to the elbows. Put deck screws into the side of the raised bed along the trellis every 6 to 12 inches. Leave them protruding about a quarter of an inch. Run string between the horizontal bar on top and the deck screws in the side of the raised bed.

Now you have a completed trellis! Completed trellis. Soil quality can be enhanced and outside inputs reduced through proper tillage, compost, cover cropping, and crop rotation. These are crucial to maintaining the high level of fertility required for the close plant spacing in a mini-farm without spending a lot of money on fertilizer. When French Intensive gardening was developed, horses were the standard mode of transportation, and horse manure was plentiful and essentially free.

This explains the reliance on horse manure as a source of soil fertility. According to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service, the average 1,pound horse generates 9 tons—18, pounds—of manure occupying nearly cubic feet per year.

Self-sufficiency pdf 1/4 mini farming on acre

Horse manure should be composted and not added directly to the bed. Horse manure is good food for crops as well. According to the same source, horse manure contains 19 pounds of nitrogen per ton, 14 pounds of phosphate, and 36 pounds of potassium. Raw horse manure can spread a parasitic protozoan called giardia and E. Raw manure can also contain worm eggs that are easily transmitted to humans, including pinworms and various species of ascarid worms. Horse manure is high in salts, and if used excessively, it can cause plants grown in it to suffer water stress, even if well watered.

The highest permissible rate of application of horse manure assuming the least measurable salinity is between two and three pounds of manure per square foot per year. Straight horse manure is also in the process of composting.

That is, the process has not yet finished. Unfinished compost often contains phytotoxic chemicals that inhibit plant growth. For horse manure to be directly usable as a planting medium, it must first be well rotted, meaning it either should be composted in a pile mixed with other compost materials such as plant debris or should at least sit by itself rotting for a year before use.

The potential problems posed by horse manure are eliminated through composting the manure with other materials first and then liberally applying the resulting compost to beds. The composting process will kill any parasites, dilute the salinity, and break down phytotoxins. Making perfect soil from scratch, on a small scale, works quite well. For small beds, the price of the components is reasonable. This works quite well on a small scale, but when even square feet are put into agricultural production, the cost can become prohibitive.

Double-digging was covered in the previous chapter, and it is what I recommend for mini-farming. Although it is more difficult in the beginning, it affords the best opportunity to prepare the best possible soil for the money invested. No-dig beds, also described in the previous chapter, are a second option. Water-Holding Capacity and pH Few soils start out ideal for intensive agriculture or even any sort of agriculture. Some are too sandy, and some are too rich in clay. Some are too acidic, and others are too alkaline.

Many lack one or more primary nutrients and any number of trace minerals. Soil for agricultural use needs to hold water without becoming waterlogged. Sandy soils are seldom waterlogged, but they dry out so quickly that constant watering is required. There is some dispute among experts on the exact definition of humus. Thus, finished compost and humus are identical for our purposes.

Clay soils will be waterlogged in the winter and will remain waterlogged as long as water comes to them. As soon as the water stops, they bake and crack, putting stress on root systems.

Clay soil is clingy, sticky, and nearly impenetrable to roots. Loam soil is closest to the ideal, as it consists of a mix of sand and clay with a good amount of humus that helps it retain water and nutrients in proportions suitable for agriculture. Both sandy and clay soils can be improved with vermiculite.

Vermiculite is manufactured by heating mica rock in an oven until it pops like popcorn. The result is a durable substance that holds and releases water like a sponge and improves the water-holding characteristics of practically any kind of soil. Because it is an insoluble mineral, it will last for decades and possibly forever. Peat moss is an organic material made from compressed prehistoric plants at the bottom of bogs and swamps, and it has the same characteristic as vermiculite in terms of acting as a water reservoir.

It costs about the same and can also be found in large bales. It should be added at the same rate as vermiculite—anywhere from four to eight cubic feet per square feet of raised bed. Vermiculite enhances the water-holding capacity of the soil. The term pH refers to how acidic or alkaline the soil is and is referenced on a scale from 0 to 14, with 0 corresponding to highly acidic battery acid, 14 to highly alkaline drain cleaner, and 7 to neutral distilled water.

As you might imagine, most plants grown in a garden will perform well with a pH between 6 and 7. There are a few exceptions, such as blueberries, that prefer a highly acidic soil. On the basis of a pH test, you can amend your soil to near neutral or just slightly acid, a pH of 6. To adjust the pH up 1 point, add dolomitic limestone at the rate of 5 pounds per square feet of raised bed and work it into the top two inches of soil.

To adjust the pH down 1 point, add iron sulfate at the rate of 1. To adjust the pH by half a point, say from 6 to 6. Wait 40 to 60 days after adding the amendments, and then retest the soil before adding any more. If amendments are added too quickly, they can build up in the soil and make it inhospitable for growing things.

A bag of fertilizer will be marked with the NPK in a format that lists the percentage content of each nutrient, separated by dashes. A completely depleted garden soil with no detectable levels of NPK requires only 4. In the case of root crops, less than 3 ounces of N are needed. Inexpensive soil tests are available to test the pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content of soil.

The most important factor in the long-range viability of your soil is organic matter provided by compost and manures, so always make sure that there is plenty of organic matter first, and then test to see what kind of fertilization is needed. You can buy a soil test kit at most garden centers, and most give results for each nutrient as being depleted, deficient, adequate, or sufficient.

The latter two descriptions can be confusing because in ordinary English, they have identical meaning. Organic fertilizers break down more slowly so they stay in the soil longer and help build the organic content of your soil as they break down.

Synthetics can certainly get the job done in the short term, but they also carry the potential to harm important microbial diversity in the soil that helps to prevent plant diseases, and they also hurt earthworms and other beneficial soil inhabitants.

For these reasons, I strongly discourage the use of synthetic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers, like synthetics, are rated by NPK, but because they are made from plant, animal, and mineral substances, they contain a wide array of trace minerals that plants also need. Probably the biggest argument in favor of using organic fertilizers is taste.

The hydroponic hothouse tomatoes at the grocery store are grown using exclusively synthetics mixed with water. Compare the taste of a hydroponic hothouse tomato with the taste of an organic garden tomato, and the answer will be clear. There is one thing to keep in mind with organic fertilizers: Many of them are quite appetizing to rodents! One spring, I discovered that the fertilizer in my garage had been torn open by red squirrels and eaten almost entirely!

Ever since, I store organic fertilizers in five-gallon buckets with lids. The LaMotte soil test kit is very accurate. There are a number of available sources for organic fertilizers. Some come premixed, or you can make them yourself from individual components. Making your own premixed fertilizer is easy. For N, you can use alfalfa meal, soybean meal, or blood meal.

For P, bone meal and rock phosphate work well. For K, wood ashes, greensand, and seaweed will work. The foregoing list is far from exhaustive, but the materials are readily available from most garden or agricultural stores.

In fact, too much nitrogen can hurt the productivity of root crops. If it does, just add triple or quadruple the amount used for adequate soil. Looking at these tables, it should be pretty easy to formulate a couple of readymade fertilizers. As long as you keep the proportions the same, you can mix up as much of it as you like to keep handy, and you know that 37 ounces of the mixture are required for each square feet.

Just a tad over two pounds. Table 1: Nitrogen Sources Table 2: Phosphorus Sources Table 3: Your actual choice of fertilizers and blends will depend on availability and price of materials, but using a variety of components guarantees that at some point practically every known nutrient—and every unknown nutrient—finds its way into your garden beds. Wood ashes should be used no more often than once every three years because of the salts they can put into the soil and because they can raise the soil pH.

The reason for dilution is that some organic fertilizers, such as blood meal, are pretty powerful—as powerful as synthetics—and if they touch crop foliage directly, they can damage plants. Liquid fertilizers are worth mentioning, particularly those intended for application directly to leaves.

In some cases, liquid fertilizers can be a lifesaver. One year, I planted out cabbage well before last frost in a newly prepared bed. A couple of days after the cabbage plants were planted, they turned yellow, starting from the oldest leaves first, which is a classic symptom of severe nitrogen deficiency. Popular organic liquid fertilizers. As an experiment, I added a heavy side-dressing of mixed blood meal, bone meal, and wood ashes and watered it in on all the cabbage plants, but for half of them, I also watered the leaves with a watering can containing liquid fertilizer mixed according to package directions.

The result was that all of the plants watered with the liquid fertilizer survived and eventually thrived, while a full half of the plants that received only a side-dressing died.

Soil Maintenance Believe it or not, soil is a delicate substance. More than merely delicate, it is quite literally alive. It is the life of the soil, not its sand and clay, that makes it fertile and productive. A single teaspoon of good garden soil contains millions of microbes, almost every one of which contributes something positive to the garden. The organic matter serves as a pH buffer, detoxifies pollutants, holds moisture, and serves to hold nutrients in a fixed form to keep them from leaching out of the soil.

Some microbes, like actinomycetes, send out delicate microscopic webs that stretch for miles, giving soil its structure. The structure of soil for intensive agriculture is maintained through cover crops explained later in this chapter to maintain fertility and prevent erosion; regularly adding organic matter in the form of left over roots, compost, and manures; crop rotation; and protecting the soil from erosion, compaction, and loosening.

Digging subsequent to bed establishment is much easier and faster than the initial double-dig. Almost all species of actinomycetes are aerobic—meaning that they require oxygen. Compacting the soil can deprive them of needed oxygen. The microbial webs in soil are extremely important in that they work in symbiosis with root systems to extend their reach and ability to assimilate nutrients.

My wife thought I was overreaching on this point and insisted on occasionally walking in the beds to harvest early beans, so I did an experiment. The results? She only weighs pounds!

Farming self-sufficiency on acre pdf 1/4 mini

The lesson is plain: Maximum productivity from a raised bed requires avoiding soil compression. Some gardeners favor heavy duty tilling of agricultural land at least yearly and often at both the beginning and end of a season.

The problem with such practices lies in the fact that the very same aspects of soil life and structure that are disrupted by compaction are also disrupted by tilling, particularly deep tilling. Soil amendments, such as compost and organic fertilizers, should be mixed with the soil—no doubt. A simple three-tined cultivator looks like a claw , operated by hand, is sufficient to incorporate amendments into the top couple of inches of soil. Earthworms and other soil inhabitants will do the job of spreading the compost into deep soil layers.

The Amazing Power of Biochar Most of us are used to thinking of charcoal as an indispensable aid to grilling, and that it certainly is! But less well-known is its equally beneficial effect when added to ordinary garden soil. The standard charcoal you buy at the grocery store may be impregnated with everything from saltpeter to volatile organic compounds intended to aid burning, so it may not be a good choice. In addition, some companies make charcoal specifically intended for agricultural use, such as Troposphere Energy.

In addition, it helps to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, thereby reducing global warming. More benefits are being discovered all the time. The three-tined cultivator is a workhorse for raised beds. The easiest way to add this incredible fertilizer to your garden beds is to make it right where you want it used: Use a hoe to make a couple of one-foot-wide and six- to nine-inch-deep trenches running the length of the bed.

Place dried branches, leaves, and other vegetable matter neatly, but not too tightly packed, in the trenches. Then, light them on fire in several places. Avoid using chemicals such as charcoal lighter or gasoline as these could seriously poison the soil. Once the material is burning well and the smoke has turned gray, cover with the moundedup soil on the sides of the trenches to deprive it of oxygen, and let it smolder until the pieces are no larger than a deck of cards.

Then, douse the embers with plentiful quantities of water. If you do this every fall with garden refuse and other vegetable matter, you will soon have soil that, taken together with the other practices here, will have astonishing levels of productivity. Cover Crops and Beneficial Microbes Today we know a lot more than our greatgrandparents did about the relationship between plants and microorganisms in the soil.

Friendly microorganisms grow into the roots themselves, setting up a mutually beneficial cooperation symbiosis and respond with natural production of antibiotics when needed to protect their host. Planting cover crops will serve to keep these critters fed through the winter months and protected from environmental hazards such as sun and erosion. This way they are healthy and well fed for the next planting season.

For these reasons, harvesting should be considered a two-part process in which the task of harvesting is followed as soon as possible with the sowing of cover crops, which can also be known as green manures.

Green manures are plants grown specifically for the role they play in sustaining soil fertility, but they also reduce erosion and feed beneficial microbes outside the growing season. The benefits of green manures on crop yield are far from merely theoretical. They are either tilled directly into the ground once grown or added to compost piles. Legumes use up their stored nitrogen to make seed, so when they are used as green manures, they need to be cut just before or during their flowering.

During the summer growing season, green manures should be grown in beds that will be followed by heavy-feeding plants, such as cabbage, as part of a crop rotation plan. Table 4: To that end, cover crops should be grown over the winter to start the spring compost pile and should also be planted in any bed not in use to prevent leaching of nutrients and promote higher fertility.

The careful use of green manures as cover crops and as specific compost ingredients can entirely eliminate the need for outside nitrogen inputs. For example, alfalfa makes an excellent green manure during the growing season in that it leaves 42 percent of its nitrogen in the ground when cut plus provides biologically fixed nitrogen to the compost pile. Green manures interplanted with crops during the growing season can form a living mulch.

Examples include sowing hairy vetch between corn stalks at the last cultivation before harvest or planting vegetables without tilling into a bed already growing subterranean clover.

Hairy vetch is an excellent cover crop. For example, using a vetch cover crop before growing lettuce can cause problems with a lettuce disease called sclerotina. Given these complications, how does a farmer pick a cover crop? Cover crops need to be picked based on the climate, the crop that will be planted afterward, and specific factors about the cover crop— such as its tendency to turn into an invasive weed.

Legumes and grains are often, though not always, sown together as a cover crop. Some cover crops, like oats and wheat, can also serve as food.

If this is anticipated, it might be worthwhile to investigate easily harvested grains like hull-less oats. However, keep in mind that the choice of green manures will be at least partially dictated by climate. Crop Rotation Crop rotation is one of the oldest and most important agricultural practices in existence and is still one of the most effective for controlling pest populations, assisting soil fertility, and controlling diseases.

The primary key to successful crop rotation lies in understanding that crops belong to a number of different botanical families and that members of each related family have common requirements and pest problems that differ from those of members of other botanical families. Cabbage and brussels sprouts, for example, are members of the same botanical family, so they can be expected to have similar soil requirements and be susceptible to the same pest and disease problems.

Peas and beans are likewise part of the same botanical family; corn belongs to yet another family unrelated to the other two. A listing of the botanical names of most cultivated plant families with edible members follows: Such effects can be partially canceled by the use of intervening cover crops between main crops.

Thankfully, a large amount of research has been done on the matter, and while nobody is sure of all the factors involved, a few general rules have emerged from the research. Never follow a crop with another crop from the same botanical family e.

Alternate deep-rooted crops like carrots with shallow-rooted crops such as lettuce. Alternate crops that add organic matter e. Alternate nitrogen fixers such as alfalfa or vetch with nitrogen consumers such as grains or vegetables. The most important rule with crop rotations is to experiment and keep careful records. Some families of plants have a detrimental effect on some families that may follow them in rotation but not on others.

These effects will vary depending on cover cropping, manuring, and composting practices, so no hard and fast rules apply, but it is absolutely certain that an observant farmer will see a difference between cabbage that follows carrots as opposed to cabbage that follows potatoes. Keeping careful records and making small variations from year to year while observing the results will allow the farmer to fine-tune practices to optimize quality and yields.

A three-bed rotation applicable to where I live in New Hampshire might give you an idea of how crop rotation with cover cropping works. Table 5: Example Three-Bed Rotation with Cover Cropping 5 Compost Anytime you pass by a forest or a long-abandoned field, you see tons of vegetation even though it is pretty obvious nobody is fertilizing the wilderness.

Progressing down the layers, within just a few inches, the leaves have turned into a sweet-smelling, living compost. This gets mixed into the existing soil through the action of earthworms and other organisms. The same mechanism is at work when a squirrel eats an acorn and drops the shell to the forest floor and then relieves himself. It all combines in the forest floor so that everything goes back whence it came and becomes available for reuse. This same is true even in death.

The squirrel eaten by a hawk has all of its parts, in some form or another, returned to the earth; likewise, a huge tree hit by lightning decomposes into the earth for reuse.

Nature is already equipped to sustain itself, as it has for billions of years. Taking energy only from the sun, nature follows the Law of Conservation of Matter to recycle all of the elements that it takes from the earth. This cycle does not work within a given area of land when elements are removed from that area more quickly than they can be replaced without taking elements from somewhere else.

This is where conventional farming cartels find themselves. They export all of their fertility from their farms in the form of crops and then replenish that fertility with artificial chemicals or with manures brought in from several states away. Such a system can endure for a long time, but it is pretty expensive and geared best to large-scale operations. Smaller-scale home-sized operations work least expensively when every effort is made to maintain as much soil fertility as possible from sources within the operation.

Conscientious attention to the nutrient cycles of the mini-farm can make a huge difference in crop yield and the amount of outside amendments and fertilizers that must be brought in—which in practical terms means reduced costs.

The nutrient cycles of the mini-farm encompass the life-deathrebirth of plants and animals as well as the grow-eat-excrete-grow of the plants and animals on the farm. The mini-farmer uses composting and fertilizer crops to accelerate the natural process of these cycles to maintain a high level of fertility in the soil. Broadly, compost is the rotted remains of plant and animal products and by-products that have been aerobically decomposed so that the individual constituents cannot be distinguished.

This is exactly what happens in nature, and the minifarmer simply helps the process along. Once this has occurred, the resulting product becomes agriculturally indispensable. Compost not only serves as a reservoir of fertility because of the individual elements and nutrients that it contains but also serves to destroy plant and animal diseases and toxins while improving the texture and moisture handling of the soil to which it is added.

The farmer stacks up a bunch of organic matter that, given time, air, and moisture, decomposes. Organic matter includes leftovers from the table, crop debris, grass clippings, leaves raked in the fall, and animal manure. In essence, anything that was either once alive or produced by something that was alive. A combination of elements are responsible for organic decomposition but most notably microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi that are already present in soil, on plants, and even in the intestines of animals.

When an environment hospitable to their growth and multiplication is created, the microorganisms digest the organic material. Along with this, a number of larger organisms such as earthworms get into the act of digesting the organic matter, thus creating an entirely different substance than what existed in the first place. Microorganisms, like people, have different dietary and climate preferences.

Some prefer to eat leaves, some prefer to eat straw, and others prefer to eat apples. As a result, the best level of decomposition and fertility occurs from adding a variety of organic substances to the pile.

Microorganisms are likewise competitive. Every species and even variant of a given species wants to make room for itself and its offspring.

Because of this, many microorganisms have developed a variety of weapons that can be used against other microbes in the compost pile. The most widely understood is the production of antibiotics by a variety of organisms intended to inhibit the growth of other organisms. A compost pile is called either thermophilic or mesophilic depending on the temperatures it achieves. The most important aspect of the relative heat of a compost pile is pathogen death.

Thermophilic composting will kill all known human pathogens—including parasitic worm eggs, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa—along with plant disease organisms and weed seeds.

Using thermophilic composting, it is both possible and practical to recycle not just ordinary plant material such as leaves and grass clippings but also leftover fried chicken. In other words, thermophilic composting makes a much broader array of compost ingredients both practical and safe. There are two factors affecting the death of plant or animal pathogens and weed seeds in compost.

The temperature achieved by the compost, as mentioned, is a big factor. Another important factor is the time that the compost is held before being used. Microbial pathogens require particular hosts to complete their life cycles, and their spores can remain inert—and thus viable—only in a warm, moist compost pile for so long. Weed seeds can be killed by the high heat of a thermophilic compost pile, but they can also be killed by virtue of the fact that the warmth of even a mesophilic pile can induce premature germination, thus interrupting the life cycle of the weeds.

The holding time for mesophilic compost is two years if it contains, or is likely to contain, pathogens from infected crops, dead animals, or other ingredients. Thermophilic compost that contains any or all of these things need only be held for a year. Compost made from solely nondisease-infected vegetation can be used after six months, no matter the temperature of the pile. Many books and articles on home composting contain long lists of things not to compost, and that list contains diseased crops, meat scraps, peanut butter, cooking oils, carnivore or omnivore feces, and so forth.

But by using thermophilic composting, the list of banned items can go into the compost pile,18 and you can recycle all of your uneaten leftovers. The proper procedures for recycling human manure are thoroughly covered with extensive documentation by Joseph Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins has kindly made an electronic version of the book available on the Internet at no cost. Just look for it in a search engine. Thermophilic Composting Four things are required to achieve thermophilic composting: Composting methods are usually described as either batch methods or continuous methods.

Batch methods add all of the ingredients at once, while continuous methods add to the pile progressively. Most mini-farmers and home gardeners are continuous composters by default. As a result the initial stages of a compost pile may not have enough bulk to retain the heat of thermophilic composting. This problem can be solved through timing: Start new compost piles in the spring, so that by the time cool weather arrives, the pile already has plenty of bulk to retain heat through the winter. In the spring, you not only add the leaves that fell on the yard during the fall but also harvest green manures that were planted in the fall for a spring harvest and add those to the pile as well.

You can also add livestock manure if available and any grass clippings or remaining crop debris. This gets the pile off to a good start with plenty of bulk. Aeration is important because thermophilic composting is aerobic, requiring oxygen. There are two sorts of microorganisms involved in decomposing organic materials—aerobic microorganisms that work in the presence of oxygen, and anaerobic microorganisms that work in the absence of oxygen. Aerobic composting reduces or eliminates odors and allows for thermophilic microbes, whereas anaerobic composting smells like a septic tank and seldom develops much heat.

Therefore, aeration is important to make good compost and maintain peace in the neighborhood. Aeration is achieved by regularly turning over and mixing compost piles. Practically every book or article written about composting advocates frequent turning of the pile to ensure adequate aeration. The idea of turning compost is so entrenched that a number of companies even make fairly expensive gadgets for helping people turn and tumble their compost.

Drilled PVC pipe used for compost aeration. Too much turning of compost is unnecessary and can actually be counterproductive by causing a loss of both valuable nitrogen and organic matter. The solution to the problem is to build the compost pile in such a way that it is self-aerating. By adding a layer of straw and making sure that no layer in the pile of any given ingredient is more than a couple of inches thick without being broken up by either straw or another ingredient, a self-aerating pile is ensured.

Or, you can try my method, in which large-diameter PVC pipes with holes drilled in them are buried vertically in the pile. Not all piles can be constructed in a fashion that guarantees self- aeration, of course; in such cases turning the pile up to five times per year is absolutely necessary. In fact, if a pile is not self-aerating, it should be turned regularly. After prolonged heavy rains that can soak into the pile and force out the oxygen, turning is a good idea.

In addition, the composting process uses a great deal of water, so when compost is turned, water should be added as needed. Watering the pile as it is turned is important. Adequate moisture is another important factor in composting.

Too much moisture in compost forces out the air, leading to anaerobic decomposition, which is not thermophilic and almost always smells bad. Too little moisture in compost causes the microorganisms to go dormant or work less effectively. Any additional moisture needed will be supplied by rain in most of North America. Remember, again, that when turning compost, check to see if water is needed, and add it if necessary. Just like humans require nutrients in given amounts to be most productive, microorganisms responsible for making compost have dietary needs.

The most relevant dietary requirement of microbes in the manufacture of thermophilic compost is the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the pile. Microbes need nitrogen to build proteins, and they need carbon for practically everything. A ratio of carbon to nitrogen of Microbes are picky but not that picky. Anywhere from Even more easily, green vegetable wastes mixed half and half with dry vegetable wastes will achieve the same result. Table 6: If neither of these works, nitrogen needs to be added.

Ideally, this would be done by mixing in green vegetation, but blood meal mixed with water and dumped into the aeration holes will work too. Blood meal is common and can be bought at garden stores and possibly the local Walmart. I use a long laboratory thermometer because I have several already. You want the pile to reach from to degrees for no less than 15 days total. In practice, your compost is unlikely to stay at such a temperature for 15 days in a row.

By using a thermometer, you can see when the temperature is starting to drop.