Four-Season Farming: Greenhouse-Chicken Synergy Experiment Underway

Chickens enjoy a warmer climate where they can still scratch on the ground, while the plants get a heated home in which to grow.
We've utilized cold frames, mulching and greenhouses in the past at Better Farm to extend the growing season for our produce; but have had yet to stumble upon something that would truly allow production to continue year-round for our use and the use of the people we serve.

A recent partnership between Redwood's food pantry, Hearts for Youth, the Redwood Neighborhood Association, and Better Farm utilizes Redwood's Community Greenhouse to cultivate food that will be donated to the food pantry for disbursement to those in need. That greenhouse was moved to Better Farm, where the people staying here have agreed to tend to the garden and provide daily care for the plants as they grow.
Community greenhouse.
But how to contribute year-round to the food pantry?

I began looking into ways to heat greenhouses year round and found a ton of information on heaters, solar panels, fans and insulation. But all potential solutions fell by the wayside when I discovered Anna Edey and her work on Martha's Vineyard with her Solviva Greenhouse.

A basic Solviva greenhouse design, as found at Backyard Chickens.
Anna, who has been an organic farming pioneer since founding her business, Solviva, in 1984. One of the most stunning project's she's worked on has been a combination greenhouse-chicken house, where chickens heat the space with their body heat and manure (which is composted along with hay). Rumor has it that on 0-degree days, Anna's greenhouse is a lovely 80 degrees.

Awed by this potential, I brainstormed ways to protect plants while keeping them in the greenhouse with chickens. There are a lot of added bonuses to this chicken-greenhouse setup besides the plants, of course. The chickens also enjoy a break from all the cold and wind, which will boost their egg production throughout the winter. Plus, all the bedding and compost will be perfect to shovel into the garden come spring.

To prep the greenhouse, a few things had to be done first. The outside of the structure had to be wrapped in chicken wire to prevent predators from simply scratching through the plastic:

A trap door was added next to the front door to allow birds access outside on manageable winter days (accomplished here without having to leave the main door open and potentially subjecting plants to a chill):
Plants (broccoli, radishes, peas, spinach, lettuce and beets) had to be covered with protective netting so plucky chickens wouldn't damage the produce:

And lastly, the birds needed a protected space to sleep and lay that even a weasle can't get into in the middle of the night:
All the materials we used for this project were upcycled scraps of chicken wire from the herb gardens, handles from a kitchen demolition project on Fishermans Rest Island, and plywood scraps leftover from a construction project in June. We pulled a ramp from one of the other chicken coops, moved the water dishes and food to the greenhouse, and began catching birds we found huddled up outside. They couldn't be happier to discover there are still some places with green grass:



The project is officially underway.  In the coming weeks we'll be tracking overall temperature in the greenhouse to determine whether the birds are able to produce enough heat, along with passive solar, to keep the greenhouse above 60 degrees all winter long. If early findings are promising, we'll be adding shelving in the greenhouse to fill it top-to-bottom with yummy plants for food pantry patrons.

Want to design a Solviva Greenhouse of your own? Get in touch with us at info@betterfarm.org.

Garden Guide: How Much to Plant, and When

It's already the second week of March! That means all you gardeners are getting geared up to start some of your plants indoors, get your peas going outside, turn your compost, and plot out your grow beds. But where to begin?

We're here to help you with your timing, seed selection, compost, and everything else involved in growing your own food.

Your spring-planting calendar will vary according to your planting zone. At the Farmer's Almanac website you can plug in your zip code to see exactly when you should be planting what in accordance with your plant-hardiness zone. Click here to give it a try. Knowing when to start your seeds is a major game-changer for home gardeners. Gardening smarter, not necessarily harder, will save you a bunch of time in the long run and increase your success rate exponentially.

For loads of information for you to access year-round, click on the "gardening" tab on the right of this page. If you'd like a more personalized approach, get in touch with us about a private garden consultation. We will come to you and go over garden mapping, seed selection, landscape design, compost, and answer all your specific questions.

But how much should you plant? Well, it depends. How much food do you want to produce? Enough to garnish your dishes? Enough to feed your whole family? And for how long? Here's a basic guide to figuring out how much you should grow to feed yourself for a year, gleaned from the classic homesteading book, Reader’s Digest: Back to Basics:
Asparagus: about 10-15 plants per person
Beans (Bush): about 15 plants per person
Beans (Pole): 2-4 poles of beans per person (each pole with the four strongest seedlings growing)
Beets: about 36 plants per person.
Broccoli: 3-5 plants per person
Cabbage: 2-3 plants per person
Cantaloupe: figure on about 4 fruits per plant (estimate how much your family would eat)
Carrots: about 100 seeds per person (1/4 oz would be plenty for a family of six)
Cauliflower: 2-3 plants per person
Collards: about 5 plants per person
Corn: start out with 1/2 lb. seeds for the family and adjust as needed
Cucumbers: 3-6 plants per family
Eggplant: 3-6 plants per family
Lettuce: 4-5 plants per person
Okra: 3-4 plants per person
Onions: 12-15 plants per person
Parsnips: 12-15 plants per person
Peas: about 120 plants per person
Peppers: 3-5 plants per person
Spinach: about 15 plants per person
Squash (including Zucchini): about 10 per family
Sweet Potatoes: about 75 plants per family
Tomatoes: about 20 plants per family
Turnips: about 1/4 lb seeds per family
Watermelon: about 1/2 oz. seeds per family
For more help planning your garden, contact us—or check out this great resource at Farmer's Almanac.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Season Kick-Off Weekend at Better Farm

Community potluck dinner-party season has started back up!
We've got spring fever at Better Farm, and have kicked the season off right by getting seed flats planted, harvesting an aquaponic bounty and copious amounts of free-range eggs, rehabilitating some unwanted plants, making signs for our new trails system, and pasteurizing last year's compost.

Seed Planting
Our artichokes, peppers, mulberries, huckleberries, leeks,  and several other varieties of produce have been planted in flats throughout the main house at the farm. Aloe plants have been divided and repotted to encourage growth for a budding skincare and essential oil line (stay tuned for more information about that!).


Aquaponic Harvest
We have a variety of beautiful, organic lettuces ready to go! Please contact us at (315) 482-2536 or info@betterfarm.org if you would like to place an order.

Egg Heads
The chickens are hip to the season shift and are laying dozens upon dozens of beautiful Ameraucana, Leghorn, and Bard Rock eggs. A dozen eggs is $3 and includes a variety of all the above-listed varieties

Plant Rehab
A trip to Watertown on Friday yielded a handful of sick cactuses and orchids being discarded at a local store that we'll be rehabilitating over the next several months. This "plant hospital" will afford us the opportunity to educated visitors on bringing plants back to life—and keep these beauties from ending up in the garbage.

New Trail-System Signs
Over the weekend a group of us walked the new trail system in Better Farm's woods—and made trailhead signs to guide the way. By summer, we'll have a map to go along with the trails, as well as trail markers and camping sites. E-mail us if you'd like to volunteer on this project.

Compost Pasteurization
We blogged in February about how pasteurizing your compost can benefit from pasteurization:
Many people choose the safest route to prevent hitchhiking seeds and damping-off by buying a pre-sterilized package of potting soil, if you have a large amount of pots and flats to fill, this could be expensive. By taking a couple of extra steps before you begin, you can use your own rich, organic compost. Some people "bake" their soil in their oven to kill micro-organisms. But this process of sterilization kills everything, even the healthy organisms that you have worked so hard to create. The answer is simple: Instead of sterilizing compost and garden soil, pasteurize it. While sterilizing kills virtually all surface-dwelling microorganisms, when you pasteurize your potting mixture, it is only heated to a temperature that kills harmful organisms and leaves beneficial organisms alone.
We experimented with this process, which wasn't as smelly as you might initially imagine; and we've been left with fluffy black soil that's going to be very very good to our seeds and seedlings in the garden.

Starting Seeds Indoors that Thrive



By Hilary Rinaldi for Weekend Gardener

If you've starting seeds indoors in the past and they didn't do well, then let's start by getting rid of any preconceived ideas you may have formed:
  1. Starting vegetable seeds indoors is not impossible!

  2. Starting vegetable seeds indoors is not complicated!

  3. Starting vegetable seeds indoors is not only for hard-core gardeners!
Repeat the above to yourself - now - let's get started, because this is fun to do!
OK - So Why Bother?

There are several good reasons to start vegetable plants from seed indoors:
  • By starting vegetables indoors, you gain 4 to 6 weeks over crops started by seed in the ground.

  • If you live in an area where your summers heat up really fast, or you have a short growing season, this can mean the difference between getting a good crop of spring vegetables that like cooler temperatures, like peas, head lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, and not getting a good crop.

    The same is true if where you live has short summers. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes will get in the ground sooner, and you can harvest and enjoy them before the cool weather returns.

  • Your plants will have established themselves before the warmer weather hits and will better be able to withstand it.

  • You have many more varieties to choose from, because you are not limited to only what is available locally at your nursery as young plants. Try new tomatoes, onions or different kinds of pumpkins.

  • It's less expensive to grow your own plants than to buy them if you plan to have a full-sized garden.

  • Lastly, you have more control, because you don't have to wait for weeks until the soil outside is warm enough to germinate the seeds. When the soil outside hasn't had time to warm up, the seeds will just rot in the cool, damp garden soil.
Of course there are two reasons not start from seed and buy young plants at the garden center: 1 - It's easier, and 2 - It's less time-consuming. So it really depends on your situation - but let's assume you're going to be bold and start your plants indoors.

Supplies

The great news is that you don't need expensive or fancy supplies to start your vegetable plants from seed indoors. Here's your supply list:
  • A south-facing or sunny window

  • A bag of potting mix that is fluffy and light, with a loose texture. You can even buy germinating mix made specfically for germination of seeds. Whatever you use, just make sure it has a good blend of soil, vermiculite or perlite, and sphagnum peat moss. Seeds don't like a heavy soil

  • Popsicle sticks

  • Waterproof pen or pencil

  • Clear plastic kitchen bags or clear plastic food wrap

  • A complete soluble fertilizer like a 15-15-15

  • Containers that are 2-3 inches (5.1-7.6 cm) wide, and 2-3 inches (5.1-7.6 cm) deep for planting - these can be: plastic cell trays (which I prefer), peat pots, Jiffy 7's, cut-off milk cartons, or Dixie cups. As long as the container has holes to drain, it's fine to use.
Important Note About Containers

One thing to keep in mind is that I don't follow the traditional routine of growing seedlings. In the past, you've been told to sow seeds in mass in one tray, and before they start to stretch, you transplant them into a larger container to finish growing; then they go out into the garden. Forget that! I don't do it, and you don't need to either.

What I do is sow the seed directly into the tray they will grow in until they're ready for the garden. By doing this, the plant's root ball stays intact, and you have healthier, sturdier plants. Plus - vining crops like melons and cucumbers that don't like to have their roots disturbed, can stay in one spot.

I like to use trays that have 20 - 40 individual cells, and that are fairly large, about 2 inches (5.1 cm) wide by 2-3 inches (5.1-7.6 cm) deep. I don't want to use a tray that has any more than 40 cells to it, because trays that have 60, 80, 120 or more cells, I feel, have too small a rooting area and the plants won't do as well.

By sowing your seeds this way, your seedlings won't crowd and stretch and you can practically start your entire garden in one tray. After all, you don't have to use one tray for each crop. If you are using a 40 count tray, you can have 5 tomato plants, 5 pepper plants, 5 onions, 5 annual flowers, etc. It's up to you, and since each one is in its own cell, you can water and feed individually to each plant's requirements.

Lastly, how many containers you will need will be determined by how much sunny space you have near your warm south-facing windows.
Getting Started

Your seedlings are going to be indoors for about 6-8 weeks, so approximately 2-3 months before your average date of final frost, is when to begin your seed indoors. My average final date of frost here is the end of March, so I will start sowing in February. If your average final date of frost is in April or May, you can start in February, or wait until the first of March.

Gardening isn't an exact science, so you will have to adjust the schedule to meet your area's weather. If you have to wait more than 8 weeks, because it's still too cold and your plants need to stay inside a bit longer, it's not a problem - you'll just have larger transplants with better developed roots.

Some ideas to try: herbs, annual flowers, onions, eggplants, celery, leeks, cantaloupes, watermelons, cucumbers, squashes, tomatoes, head lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers.
Step-by-Step

Fill your container of choice with the potting mix, but make sure it is premoistened. To premoisten, simply put the soil in a separate, large container and wet it through. You don't want it soggy, just moist.

Level with a piece of wood or a stick to form a flat surface.

Gently sow your seed into the mix. If you are using a 40 count cell tray as I do, then put only 1 or two seeds per cell. You can always thin the extra one out. If you are going to use a square peat pot, then sow only 3 or 4 plants per pot. Again, this is so you won't have to transplant them. If you sow too thickly you'll either have to thin them out or eventually transplant them into their own containers, which I don't like to do - but it's your choice.

Take a clean dry piece of cardboard, and press the seeds into the soil surface to make sure there is good, firm contact with the soil. This will help with germination.

Then sprinkle more soil on top, enough to cover the seeds. Rule of thumb is to plant seeds 4 times their diameter. For lettuce seeds that are tiny, that is about 1/4 of an inch (.64 cm). Just make sure to read the seed packet, it always gives a specific planting depth.
Mark your seedling flats, with your popsicle sticks and waterproof pen, noting the variety of vegetable, and date planted. This is good to do, especially if you are growing different varieties of a certain crop, because you can compare how they do. I do it mainly so I can remember what I planted when I move them out into the garden!

Place the planted container inside a plastic bag and tie it closed, or you can cover the tray with plastic wrap making sure the wrap stays off the soil surface. You won't need to water it again until the seedlings sprout.

Don't put the flat in a cool, drafty area, or one that's too warm, like on the window sill. We won't put them on the window sill UNTIL they have sprouted. If you have ever made bread, it's the same principle, you want a spot that is nice, and evenly warm. A good place is on top of your refrigerator, if you have room for it there.

Basically you want somewhere away from sunlight. Light that is too strong can dehydrate the flat, or it can cause too much moisture to be trapped under the plastic, which could rot the seeds.

As soon as the seeds sprout and have broken through the soil surface, remove the plastic bags or wrap.

Seedlings usually appear within 10 days to 2 weeks. If they don't, don't worry. They can sometimes take up to 3 weeks, from too much moisture or from being in too cold or drafty an area.

If for some reason, your seeds never appear, don't panic. Simply replant your container, improve the growing conditions for warmth and lack of light and try again. Gardening many times is an experiment, so don't worry about it.

Once the seeds have sprouted, they will need full sun, and that's when you move them to the sunny south-facing window. If you don't have one, here is where you may need to invest in lighting equipment, but most people have somewhere they can get full sunlight for their seedlings.

Remember to try to avoid large temperature fluctuations. So if the nights are still very cold and icy, pull the plants back from the windows so they don't get too cold. What you are after is keeping your seedlings in a nice, warm, even environment.

If you want to improve this process because you have a very drafty, cold house, you can buy heat tape or a heat mat. Heat tape has wires inside that you can plug in, and a heat mat is just that, a mat with wires. Put the tape or mat under the flats to keep them evenly and moderately warm. Normally, though, your warm south-facing window will do the trick.

Watering

Now is the time to start watering your new plants. At first, check daily, until you get the hang of how fast they dry out. Check the soil moisture by putting your fingertip in the soil. If it's not moist, water them. Some people water with room temperature water to reduce the chance of shocking the seedlings with cold water.

The two best ways to water your young plants to avoid washing them away are:
  1. From the bottom of the flat, just set the flat in a larger container, fill with water and allow the water to work its way up from the bottom. Once the surface of the soil is moist, you can take the flat out of the water tray.

  2. Use a spray bottle and mist them with fine spray.
3 to 4 weeks after sowing, when the plants are established, you can add some complete soluble fertilizer to the water. Fertilize only once or twice before they go into the garden. You don't want rapid growth right now, just a bit of food to keep them healthy.
Hardening Off

Your seedlings will be indoors for about 6-8 weeks. After that, during the next two weeks, you will want to start hardening them off by putting them outside for 2-3 hours a day in full sun and then bringing them back in. Then put them in sun for 2-3 hours and then in the shade for a few more hours and them bring them back in. By the second week you can leave them out all day and night provided it doesn't freeze.

Your goal for the last 2 weeks is the get the plants ready to be transplanted out into the garden without shocking them with a sudden move. They need to get used to being outside, and you don't want them to sunburn, windburn, or freeze.
Planting Out

Once it's time to get them into the garden, there are a few steps you want to take to make sure you don't give your new, young plants, transplant shock.
  • Try to transplant them in the late afternoon when the sun is low. This will keep them from drying out.
  • Make sure they are well watered before you plant.
  • Make sure the soil you are planting them into is moist.
  • Try to disturb the root ball as little as possible.
  • Water them in thoroughly, to make sure the soil has settled around the root ball.
  • Put down snail bait around the plants to make sure they don't get munched.
  • Keep them moist and well watered for the first 4-5 days to make sure they get established.
After that, you can treat them like regular plants and allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. Just try not to stress them by allowing them to get too dry and possibly wilt. Even soil moisture is best.
Conclusion
If you've never had success starting seeds indoors, now is the time to try again. As you can see, there is nothing hard or complicated about this. The supplies are minimal, and there is very little technique to it. It comes down to paying attention to a few details, and taking the time.

But after all, isn't that what gardening is? A great way to get away from everything, and everyone, and spend some time doing something fun.
With over 20 years professional gardening experience Hilary Rinaldi has a very real interest in making gardening fun, doable, and successful for everyone. She is a professional public speaker and educator in the horticulture industry.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Pre-Spring Houseplant Care

With spring planting just around the corner, we used this week to shake the dust from our houseplants with some transplanting into larger containers, trimming leaves back, and waking up some bulbs. In this blog we'll give you some simple DIY fertilizer recipes for your houseplants, and a quick run-down of what's going on inside at Better Farm.

DIY Plant Steroids
Here are some simple homemade fertilizer recipes for your houseplants:
  • Give houseplants your leftover, cold coffee. This works particularly well for ivy plants.
  • Once a month, you can water your houseplants with a mixture of: 1 tablespoon Epsom Salts, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. household ammonia, and 1 gallon of water.
  • Another method is to collect eggshells after baking and place them in a glass jar covered with water. Don't put the lid on tight. Let the eggshells sit for about a month and keep adding additional egg shells as you acquire them. Add more water if necessary. When you are ready to fertilize, dilute it (1 cup egg shell solution to 1 gallon plain water) and use it to water all of your plants. Or, mix finely crushed, rinsed eggshells into your potting soil to give your houseplants a good boost. The eggshells are a good substitute for bonemeal.
  • If you have a fish tank, when you change the water in the tank, use the water you take out to water your plants.
  • Once a month, pour room-temperature beer onto your plants.
  • A wonderful plant food is regular green tea. Dilute the tea with two gallons of water. You can use this every time you water.
  • Another homemade plant food recipe featuring beer is: 1 cup beer, 1 cup epsom salts, 1/2 cup ammonia, and 2 cups water. Use 1/2 oz. on each plant every two weeks. Great for all houseplants, especially orchids.
  • One last recipe is: 1 cup used coffee grounds, egg shells from 2 eggs (process in coffee grinder), 1/16 oz. ammonia, 1 cup water, 1/8 tsp. Epson salts. Stir together until well mixed. You can spoon this mixture around the base of most flowering plants, except for African Violets. Don't mix it into the soil, just let is sit on top if the soil. Apply this mixture monthly.
Bulbs
Bulbs are watered, edged in moss, and kept in a sunny location with much anticipation. This bulb was a Christmas gift from the Cohens in Ridgewood, N.J.
Bulbs given to us last fall from neighbor Al Streeter were stored in the basement all winter. Now four pots of bulbs are fully hydrated and enjoying sunnier days. Stay tuned for pics in the coming weeks!
 Air Purifiers and Vines
Leaves on this air purifier are trained up the hanger and will eventually run throughout the kitchen.

This Neon Pothos is a new addition (thanks to Amberlee Clement for bringing us several plants!) that will climb the library walls.

This pot is bursting with various kinds of ivy that will travel along library walls.

These jade and cactus plants are clippings from larger plants.

...another angle of the jade and cactus.
A succulent given to us by Jaci Collins
Teeming cactus plants

Hens and chicks.
Another jade plant.

A freshly re-potted plant that has been growing in leaps and bounds

Here's what we do during our pre-spring houseplant clean-up:
  • Overcrowded plants get bigger vessels in which to grow
  • Dusty leaves are wiped off
  • Fresh compost and soil is added to pots in need
  • Water from our aquaponics is used to give the plants a high dose of vitamins and minerals
  • Dead leaves are trimmed
  • Some plants are cut and those trimmings planted to establish new growth
1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Spring Prep

Spring is barreling at us full-speed-ahead, thank goodness!

It's time to get the gardens, raised beds, and compost prepped for next week, when we'll begin planting in Better Farm's greenhouse.

There are a lot of moving parts involved with keeping several gardens going, so it helps around here to keep a careful to-do list in order to make sure everything gets taken care of. From seed selection to dirt prep to planting, here's what we'll be busy with in the next few weeks.


All the Moving Parts
Our garden map has been a huge help keeping ideas organized for seed selection, companion planting pairs, and placement. This year we'll also be keeping track of how much food in pounds we produce; and the cost-effectiveness of keeping backyard birds for mini-tilling, egg production, and garden fertilization. Here are the other pieces to the puzzle:

Pasteurization of Compost
We blogged earlier in the week about the importance of pasteurizing any compost you plan to start seeds in, in order to prevent a harmful phenomenon called "damping off" and the sprouting of any errant seeds from your compost heap.

Seed Selection
This week we ordered our seeds, which will arrive in the next 4 to 6 days. Here's what we've got to plant:

Herb Beds 
Amaranth, Arugula, Asparagus, Chia, Chives, Cilantro, Cumin, Dill, Garlic, Lemon Balm, Lettuce, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard Greens, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Spinach, Swiss Chard

Main Garden
Artichoke, Asparagus Bean, Beets, Black Beans, Bok Choy, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Cannelini Beans, Cauliflower, Carrot, Celery, Chick Peas, Corn, Cucumber, Edamame, Hubbard Squash, Kale, Kidney Beans, Leek , Lentils, Onion, Peanuts, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Radishes, Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes, Watermelons

Mandala Garden
Artichoke, Cantaloupe, Eggplant, Lavender, Marigolds, Mulberry Trees, Nasturtiums, Okra, Pumpkin, Rhubarb

Aquaponics
Lettuce, Spinach, Various Herbs

Sprouts
Alfalfa, Broccoli, Chia

Grounds Prep
With a mulch garden outside, four big raised herb beds, and an aquaponics setup, there's a lot of ground to cover and enrich. As soon as some of this snow gets going, the chicken tractors will begin their migrations throughout the gardens so the birds can get things good and turned over between now and June. More hay will also be added to the rows (along with the compost heap that's been working itself over all winter.

The herb beds will be raked out (we've been mulching with wood chips and hay throughout the winter) to allow space for garlic, leeks, chives, mint, and asparagus to re-assert themselves.

The aquaponics pea gravel will need to be cleaned, the filters changed, and a new round of greens planted.

Scheduling
Next week we'll get a big chunk of our seeds into potting soil and out to the greenhouse. Peas will go directly into the ground in mid-March, and (weather permitting), direct-plant seeds will go into the garden in late May and early June. Potatoes will go into dirt in April.

If you are interested in volunteering in Better Farm's gardens once or on an ongoing basis, please contact us at info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Green Thumb: Pasteurize Your Compost

Seedlings that have succumbed to "damping-off". Image from Oregon State.
We've run into some issues in the last few years when compost being used as potting soil for new seeds has led to all kinds of errant seedlings sprouting (we're looking at you, cherry tomatoes!). The compost has harbored seeds of all kinds that were thrown out, only to hang around until spring when we try to grow other seeds out of the newly formed dirt.

While this may be welcome in some instances, in others it's important that your compost not sprout unwanted weeds or plants you don't intend to take care of. We've also learned that "damping-off" (a horticultural condition caused by pathogens killing or weakening seeds and seedlings)
can zap your seedlings before they have a fighting chance to grow. 

These issues can be solved in one fell swoop by pasteurizing your compost before using it for potting soil.

About "Damping-Off"
Most prevalent in wet and cool conditions, damping-off happens when pathogens kill or weaken seeds and seedlings.All symptoms result in the death of at least some seedlings in any given population. Groups of seedlings may die in roughly circular patches, the seedlings sometimes having stem lesions at ground level. Stems of seedlings may also become thin and tough ("wire-stem") resulting in reduced seedling vigor. Leaf spotting sometimes accompanies other symptoms, as does a grey mold growth on stems and leaves. Roots sometimes rot completely or back to just discolored stumps.

Seeds that are infected with damping off will not germinate and plant stems shrivel causing seedlings to topple over and die. If you have waited an unusually long time for a particular seed to germinate, brush the soil away and carefully take a peak. If it is dark and mushy it has damping off and the only thing left to do is start over, this time with clean potting soil.

This problem happens everywhere things grow, no matter where you live and there is absolutely no remedy once plants and seeds are infected. The answer is prevention.

Damping off can be prevented or controlled in several different ways. Sowing seeds in a sterilized growing medium can be effective, although fungal spores may still be introduced to the medium, either on the seeds themselves or after sowing (in water or on the wind). Maintaining drier conditions with better air circulation helps prevent the spread of the disease, although it can also prevent or slow down germination. Spraying or drenching the soil with a recommended anti-fungal treatment (such as copper oxychloride) also helps suppress the disease. Homemade solutions (including ones made from chamomile tea or garlic) are used by some gardeners for this purpose.

Pasteurizing Compost

Note: the following tips were gleaned from Aradacee.
Many people choose the safest route to prevent hitchhiking seeds and damping-off by buying a pre-sterilized package of potting soil, if you have a large amount of pots and flats to fill, this could be expensive. By taking a couple of extra steps before you begin, you can use your own rich, organic compost.

Some people "bake" their soil in their oven to kill micro-organisms. But this process of sterilization kills everything, even the healthy organisms that you have worked so hard to create.

The answer is simple: Instead of sterilizing compost and garden soil, pasteurize it. While sterilizing kills virtually all surface-dwelling microorganisms, when you pasteurize your potting mixture, it is only heated to a temperature that kills harmful organisms and leaves beneficial organisms alone.

How-To
To pasteurize, take a large aluminum-baking pan and cover it with three to four inches of potting soil, insert a meat thermometer in the center and place in a preheated oven, at 200°F., once the center reads 160°F., bake for 30 minutes. Allow mixture to cool thoroughly before using.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

DIY Upcycled Planter Design

Elyna's vertical garden in Better Farm's library.
We wrote last week about a simple vertical gardening project utilizing discarded plastic bottles. Intern extraordinaire Elyna Grapstein came up with another system over the weekend that she applied in Better Farm's library. And to get into the mix of things, betterArts resident Kevin Carr upcycled some plastic bottle caps to make us a colorful planter for our overgrown aloe plants.


It was simple serendipity that in the midst of all this going on, summer Millsite Lake-dweller Tammy Leach Lueck stopped in at Better Farm to drop off some herbs she grew over the summer in her garden (she and her husband headed back to Florida Saturday and couldn't talk all the plants with them). Basil, nasturtium, oregano, rosemary, and parsley plants filled out our planters systems quite nicely.

Here are some photos of Elyna putting the vertical garden together. For this design, you cut a hole in the bottom of a bottle, put the top of the next bottle through that hole, and screw the top on:


And the finished pieces:





For Kevin's design, he attached bottle caps with hot glue:



Got a great DIY idea? Share it with us at info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Vertical Garden Update

One of Better Farm's vertical garden setups is finally under way! Yesterday in the greenhouse, three beautifully painted plastic bottles were hung with just a few nails and some wire along a wall in the greenhouse. Not only is it exciting to have started a living, growing, space saving garden, but the bottles certainly brighten the greenhouse, as well.


The next step is to figure out the proper way to take care of these plants. One piece of advice we've been given is to mist the leafy green plants everyday instead of watering them like any outdoor plant. Leafy plants will get mites when grown indoors if natural growing conditions are not reproduced (like morning dew). Misting will keep the mites away, and more than that, it will also allow for fresh air flow.

There is also always an issue of getting your indoor plants the proper amount of sunlight. Vegetable plants generally need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day in order to produce vegetables at all. However, light can be increased in a number of ways. Mirrors or any kind of reflective surface, like mylar for example, can nearly double the amount of lumens reaching your plants.

Our next project is going to be a vertical herb garden in the kitchen—possibly also using plastic bottles. The only difference will be the goal of creating a vertical garden while also implementing a drip irrigation system. But don't worry, we'll keep you all updated on that too!

Lettuce Present: Aquaponic harvest

Lettuce and baby herbs in our aquaponic grow bed.
Back in July we finished our aquaponic setup in Better Farm's library, complete with grow light, grow bed, light stand, and 70-gallon fish tank which also served as a home to a dozen or more koi, goldfish, minnows, and one friendly sucker fish.

Just one month later, our crop of organic, loose-leaf lettuce is ready for harvest. That's a full month earlier than most lettuce grown in dirt! The leaves on our aquaponic lettuce are unbelievably delicate and nutritious—be sure to stop by our farm stand and see for yourself! You can read all about the benefits of aquaponic gardening here.

Here are some photos of our setup:


For more information on setting up an aquaponic system in your own home, school, or office, click here.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Aquaponics Part IV: Why Aquaponics?

The aquaponic setup at Better Farm.
By Noah Bogdonoff
In case you missed it, Better Farm has been steadily working on setting up an indoor aquaponic garden. We’ve taken you through the set-up and installation of our own system, but one big question remains: Why aquaponics? What can this type of system give us that we don’t already get from our (beautiful!) garden?


Firstly, aquaponic gardening is space-efficient. This isn’t so much an issue up in the North Country, where land is easy to come by, but in urban areas aquaponic gardening could revolutionize the way people think about food. Because aquaponic systems don’t require soil, all one needs to garden is enough space for a fish tank and a growing container that can fit atop it. This is also space-efficient in that it builds vertically, preserving precious floor space! Since many residents and interns (myself included) hail from cities, this is a perfect way for them to get started with sustainability when they return to their natural habitats.

Secondly, this system provides us with food year-round. North Country winters are notoriously harsh and the availability of fresh produce could save us from a winter of frozen and canned foods. For people living far away from grocery stores or those who don’t have easy access to organic and local foods, aquaponics is a surefire way to add some fresh, healthy food to your diet without having to go on a road trip. And, speaking of road trips, aquaponic gardening is a beautiful form of “lifestyle activism”—by growing food in your own home, you can avoid wasting the energy required to transport the food as well as the energy required to drive to the store.

The third big advantage of aquaponic gardening is that, given all of the above, it actually saves you money and time. As with outdoor gardens, growing your own food can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars every year. The average payback time for an aquaponic garden has been estimated at two years, meaning that after two years, you’ll have saved the amount of money you spent on the system. After that, your average cost of living per year will decrease. Unlike traditional gardens, however, which require laborious hours of weeding, watering, and tending, aquaponic gardens are extremely low maintenance. Once the nitrogen cycle is set up and the seeds are planted, the closed-loop nature of the system allows it function mostly on its own, as long as you’re feeding your fish. Once a plant is fully grown, just pull it up and pop another seed in its place.  

There are many more reasons to go aquaponic, but it’s easy to see why the above three could completely change the landscape of food politics in cities, suburbs, and harsh climates. Stop by the farm later on in the summer to see the fruits (well, vegetables) of our labor!

Aquaponic Gardening Phase III: Build your light stand

Our aquaponics set-up has been enjoyed an ideal nitrogen level for months now, with the ecosystem of various fish and water plants settling into a healthy regimen and routine. Our grow light arrived two weeks ago (ordered through the newly opened North Country Hydroponics in Waterotown), and we scooped up some gravel for inside the grow bed. All that's left to do is build our light stand, add seeds, and watch 'em grow.


There are tons of designs on the market for building a grow light stand, or you can buy your own for a pretty penny. We liked the simple, lightweight construction afforded by plastic pipes; though you could create a similar design with 1x1's as long as your light isn't too heavy.

Here are some easy plans for building a 24-inch grow light stand, courtesy of Cornell University. If you're like us and have a different size grow bed/light system/tank, be sure to adjust the measurements listed below to accommodate your system.

Before you start:

Before making any connection, make sure that the pipe and fitting are correctly positioned. (See diagrams.) Insert the pipe into the fitting as far as you can by hand. The fitting has an internal ridge. The end of the pipe should touch this ridge. Hit the fitting with a block of wood until the pipe is snug against the ridge. Several blows with some force will probably be necessary.

Cut the pipe:

Most types of saws will make the cuts. A miter box is helpful to make straight cuts.

  1. From one 10' pipe length saw two 49" pieces and two 8" pieces.
  2. From a second 10' pipe length saw three 36" pieces.
  3. From the third 10' pipe length saw one 36" piece, two 8" pieces and eight short pieces.
    To determine the length of the short pieces: Measure the depth a pipe will enter an elbow from the edge of the elbow to its internal ridge. (This depth varies depending on the manufacturer of the fitting.) Measure the similar internal depth in a Tee. Add the two depths together and subtract 1/8". This will be the length of the eight short pieces to be cut.
  4. From the fourth 10' pipe length two other pieces will be cut after their lengths are determined.
Assemble the base:
  1. Connect one 90º elbow to a 49" pipe. Connect another elbow to other end of the pipe in the same direction as the first elbow. Connect elbows to other 49" pipe in the same manner.
  2. Figure 2

  3. Position a Tee in the proper direction. Insert a short piece of pipe between them and force the fittings together. Connect three other Tees in the appropriate directions.
  4. Figure 3

  5. Connect two 8" pipes (one fitting at a time) between the Tees on each side of the base.
  6. Figure 4
Assemble the top:

The front assembly of the top should have the same width as the front assembly of the base.
  1. Place an elbow and a Tee touching each other along one end of the front of the base. Place another Tee and an elbow touching each other along the other end of the front of the base.
  2. Measure the distance between the edges of the Tees and then add to this measure the depths the pipe will fit into the two Tees. (This depth varies depending on the manufacturer of the fittings.) The total is the length of each of the two pieces of pipe remaining to be cut.
  3. Figure 5

  4. Cut the two pieces. With two elbows, two Tees, two short pieces of pipe and one of the new pieces of pipe, connect the front assembly of the top. Connect the back assembly of the top with similar pipes and fittings.
  5. Figure 6

  6. Connect the front and back assemblies of the top with two 8" pieces of pipe.
  7. Figure 7
Final assembly:

Connect each of the four 36" pipes to the four Tees on the base. Position the top assembly onto the 36" pipes. Connect the four Tees of the top, one at a time, to the 36" pipes.

Figure 8

Hang the shop light

Loop the chain around a top 8" pipe and close the loop by connecting the end of the chain to one of its links with an S hook. Similarly loop the other piece of chain around the other top 8" pipe. With S hooks attach the lower end of the chains to the slots on the shop light.

The distance between the top of the plants and the shop light can be adjusted by changing the lengths of the loops.

Double shoplight option
If you would like to double the depth of the unit described, cut and use four 17" pieces of pipe instead of the four 8" pieces. Purchase a second 48" fluorescent shop light (2 lamp) (40 watt), one 48"cool white fluorescent bulb (40 watt), one 48" daylight (warm) fluorescent bulb (40 watt), (4) S hooks ( 1" size) and (2) 2 ½ feet of chain ( loops large enough for S hooks).

This system of using two shop lights will allow you to adjust the height of each set of lights independently and provide light to both short and tall plants within the same unit.

24-inch model:
If you have limited space, you can construct a frame that will accomodate a 24" shop light. This smaller version requires only 3 10' sections of PVC pipe. Follow these initial cutting instructions:

  1. From one 10' pipe length saw two 25" pieces and two 34" pieces.
  2. From a second 10' pipe length saw two 34" pieces. Two other pieces will be cut from this pipe after their lengths are determined.
  3. From the third 10' pipe length saw four 6" pieces and eight short pieces. Follow instructions above for determining the length of the short pieces.
  4. Follow the assembly instructions above, only substitute the 25" pieces for the 49" pieces, and the 34" pieces for the 36" pieces.

Read about our aquaponic set-up in its entirety:
Aquaponic Gardening: Phase I
Aquaponic Gardening: Phase II
Building a Grow Bed for your Aquaponic Garden
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Signs of Spring

Hands in dirt: sure sign of spring.
The first week of March marks the very beginning of the growing season up here in the North Country: prepping and planting seeds, stocking the greenhouse, turning our compost, and getting the rows in the garden ready.

First, we went out to the compost heap and shoveled beautiful, black dirt into old plastic bags to use as potting soil. Then we took all our flats out of the greenhouse and set them up on the picnic table:
Our weekend intern, Shani, at left, and our latest resident, Sue.
Here are Shani and Susan filling the trays with dirt:

To make labels for the plants, Shani cut up empty plastic water bottles and Susan used a Sharpie to write out the names of the veggies we were planting. Once we pushed the seeds into the dirt, it was out to the greenhouse with the soon-to-be sprouts:

To keep the babies hydrated, we're utilizing rainwater from the catchment system installed last summer:

This week we'll be filling the greenhouse, moving the compost heap, and beginning construction on a new chicken coop for our incoming feathered friends. Spring is upon us!

If you'd like to volunteer with us, e-mail info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.