Books, Garden

Changing tactics as new material is learned

Previously, spent wood ashes from making own lye were disposed of into the compost pile.


After digging into the new book, The Humanure Handbook, no substance that significantly alters pH including liming agents (eg: agricultural lime, wood ashes; sulphur on the other end of the pH scale) should be added to the pile. Instead, these substance should be added directly to the soil and can be added at the same time as compost. The issue lies in how the pH affects the microbes responsible for the process of active composting. Thus I would see no problem with ashes being added to entirely mature compost once the biological processes have terminated.

In fact, the book presents a finding that liming agents as well as other soil amendments like acidifiers and fertilizers are more fully utilized and reach deeper into soils that have been dressed with compost compared to untreated soils. The author asserts that increased organic matter is like responsible for the observations.

Composting any organic scraps from paper to veggie peelings to bones (and yes, human manure but we can take steps one at a time!) is an easy way one can take to lessen their environmental impact and keep precious nutrients from be lost forever to the anaerobic landfill. That compost can help any plant from lawns to veggies to potted houseplants to landscaping plants and everything in between!


El niño year causing garlic top growth in winter


This photo kind of hurts my eyes. I must have had HDR on for some reason so I apologize for that!

Fall planted garlic is not supposed to form top growth until spring! Winter has finally arrived after much of December seeing temperatures in the 70 degrees F.

If you are concerned about the effect of unseasonably warm winters on the success of garlic, fear not. Most reading I’ve done on gardening forums has assured that the top growth will die back in when cold finally sets in only to regrow in the spring causing no harm to the clove-bulb development that we seek.

Anyone else seeing this? Or has anyone had this happen in the past and want to provide some additional reassurance?



Drying and storing hops

I’m using the hops that I didn’t send to the local brewery to practice the drying process. Once picked, hops need to be dried so they don’t mold while also kept from exposure to light. The latter needs to be observed all the way until the finished beer is consumed. Light exposure activates the photosynthetic tissue in residual hop matter that flavors or bitters beer resulting in the distinct “skunk” flavor that has actually become a characteristic flavor of some European beers packaged in green bottles then shipped to the US.

So I use discarded beverage trays lined with discarded screen in combination with time to dry my hops. Mild heat or airflow can be used to speed the process but I avoid mechanical processing and strong airflows that might dislodge the pollen looking resins that contain the desired acids/flavor/aroma compounds. This is only mentioned because some people use tumble driers or even clothing driers!

I start by weighting a specific amount of hops that will be kept together through the entire process. The process is to fill a tray loosely with a layer of wet (aka fresh) hops. Then repeat by stacking the next tray atop the previous tray:


When the test sample of hops loses 80% of it weight, I store them in ziplock bags, squeeze the air out then freeze. If I’m feeling less lazy, I’ll vacuum pack the hops in a food saver. When I am feeling conditionally lazy like with this batch, I’ll spend 5 hours brewing a batch of beer just to avoid the 20 seconds it takes to toss the hops into a freezer.

Note: this is just my casual process for harvesting poor quality first year hops. Usually hops are mostly green, but my centennial hops were overripe thus overdried on the vine while the cascade hops were underripe with the first frost bearing down that weekend. So I harvested and processed them together!


My go-to garden ground cover

Many, many times previously, I’ve mentioned my prefered ground cover of buckwheat and clover. Since even immature buckwheat helps soil structure, I tried to sneak in one last planting before frost with seeds from the earlier plants:


To be completely honest, I’ve planted a few different clovers and I’m not longer aware which variety is depicted above. It is either dutch white, crimson or medium red clover.

Since the first frost occurred, all of the buckwheat is gone as I explained here. Yet the clover is still thriving and a deep green!


October 18: first frost evidenced by the death of my garden

I thought I snapped a picture to demonstrate this, but as it turns out, I didn’t. So I have to rely on words to paint the picture:

Massive pumpkins lie in various stages of ripeness: many deep orange, some still fully green with a few in various stages in between. Fruit is harvested from its shroud of golden brown foliage that died over the previous night. After a few days, the foliage is already being consumed by the soil leaving only the denser stems as evidence to what once grew in the now barren garden bed.

Moving down the row, the 2 foot high tangle of buckwheat stands erect but devoid of any chlorophyll that had colored the jungle green only hours previously. Within days, the jungle had deteriorated revealing the low growing mat of deep green that could only be expertly cultivated clover.

Ok ok, the clover mats occur in splotches sporadically located throughout the garden beds. Not in a manner that indicates expert cultivation.

Now with all the pumpkins and hops harvested, the leaves either changing or dropped from the blueberries and grapes, the only remaining green in the garden is the asparagus ferns and clover ground cover (and grass aisles).

Also, the oregano plant has been an absolute doll all season. It sat next to its grape companion, just slowly growing while never bolting (unlike the basil and dill) and is now making me wonder if oregano is an evergreen. It is still retaining its low, wide growth of only leaves even after a full summer and a freeze while still smelling and tasting amazing. I’ll certainly be planting more next season!


Rain Rain go away, I have some garlic to plant

Garlic is planted in the fall. I’m not ashamed to admit that I learned that fact somewhat recently when planning out the garden for next year. Individual cloves are planted in the fall where they begin to set roots. Topgrowth occurs the following spring and the new bulbs can be harvested in the early to mid summer. I also learned that a common problem in garlic cultivation is that the bulbs and roots will rot in the ground.

According to NOAA at, the farm has received 9 inches of rain in the last 30 days, 5″ in the last 14 days and 3″ in the last week. With ground saturation further evidenced by the deep ruts my dad’s truck left in the pasture, I decided to let the ground dry out for another week before planting the garlic.

Types of Garlic

Garlic comes in three general types. Hardneck is more winter hardy with complex and stronger flavors that reflect growing conditions but come at the expense of less shelf life. Softneck garlic is type usually sold in grocery stores with mild flavor and long storage potential. Elephant garlic is actually technically a leek but has a garlic flavor that is even more mild with a long shelf life. Do note that garlics all have similar flavors when harvested, but the differences are formed in the curing process.

Variety Selection

I used this document from Virginia Tech/Virginia Cooperative Extension which provides recommendations specifically for the elevated regions west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The point of this year’s planting of garlic is to learn the process and depending on success, multiply the amount of bulbs I can plant next year when commercial interests come into play.

Based on the linked document, I decided to focus on “Spanish Roja” while experimenting with Elephant garlic and softneck garlics. I linked to the cheapests sources that I found; the first two on amazon and all softneck garlics will be sourced from the grocery store. There are some passionate garlic cultivators out there who have formed networks, so a quick google search of your location is recommended to potentially find a great source of both knowledge and bulbs.


Simply break the bulbs apart and plant individual cloves pointed-end upwards, 4 inches apart, and two inches deep. I’m going to flag each location so I can cover with mulch over winter then rake back the mulch in spring. Also I will experiment with not pulling the mulch back at all on some of the garlic plantings. I mulched over the freshly sewn buckwheat for the late summer crop and watched the weak rooted and fleshy stemmed plants work their way through the mulch. If buckwheat can power through some mulch, I’m sure garlic can.

Nutrient requirements:

Garlic really only require moderate amounts of nitrogen from what I have read. Between compost and clover living mulch, nothing more will be done. The clover mulching brings me to an interesting point…

Potential Companions:

Clover is my default companion. According to this source (PDF warning), when legumes like beans and peas are planted with garlic, each plant suppresses the growth of the other’s, yet increases the profit per area. I’m assuming the interaction between garlic and clover can be extrapolated to be the similar!

Plants in the allium family (onions, garlic, leeks, chives, others) have been reported to repel boring insects and animals like rabbits, both are great pests to fruit trees. I will use the cheaper softneck garlics from the grocery store as I do not believe aerating soil helps tree establishment, thus have not provided conditions for good bulb development in garlic.

Garlic helps pretty much every other garden plant with the exception being grapes for the reason that garlic stunts growth. Otherwise garlic repels “Aphids, Japanese beetles, mites, cabbage looper, ants, cabbage maggot, fruit borers, red spider mites, diamondback moth on Chinese cabbage, slugs” from the wikipedia entry on companion plants.


Another growth characteristic of garlic that I have not yet mentioned is that each generation, even in asexual vegetative reproduction, adapts to the growing condition. Combined with its immense insect deterring properties and commercial potential, it should be clear why I get those first generations into the ground as soon as possible. Any plants that survive to harvest strengthens my localized gene pool and similarly, those that die remove those plants containing genes unsuitable to my specific climatic and growing conditions.



Anecdotal: Basil + Asparagus = ladybugs

Here is a ladybug nymph molting on my asparagus fern adjacent to the bolted basil:



There are hundreds of nymphs in the asparagus beds, including the one without basil so I’m not sure how much the basil has to do with it. I decided to bolster the predatory insect population with additional mail order ladybirds. That discussion will be saved for the off season downtime!


The virtues buckwheat in organic farming and gardening

Buckwheat is not a new development. It has been used for centuries including being found in correspondences regarding its weed suppressing powers between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two men notoriously obsessed with gardening. As the practices of agriculture changed along with the economic forces driving modern farming, buckwheat is no longer a widely cultivated crop.

However, those same forces of economics are also reviving buckwheat due to its weed suppression powers that require very little labor or inputs to harness. Growing in partially decaying organic matter is the property that causes buckwheat to be recommended as the first crop cultivated on idle or reclaimed land. By watering a few days before sowing, weeds germinate to then be smothered out by the fast growing buckwheat resulting in the permanent removal of those weed seeds from the soil seed bank.

Those weed suppressing powers coupled with its quick lifecycle make buckwheat a fantastic cover crop to prevent a summer annual weed infestation. Buckwheat takes 10 weeks to go from germination to seed and is a heavy phosphorus feeder. If only soil conditioning and weed suppression are desired with no consideration required for harvest, it can be mowed before maturity and the plant matter rapidly deteriorates releasing mineralized phosphorus into the soil for the next crop of plants. All together, buckwheat can usually be raised to a full crop between spring and fall plantings of other crops, or as a second crop behind long season crops like grains, corn, etc.

Looking specifically at the soil conditioning properties, buckwheat forms a dense network of very fine roots. While it cannot penetrate hardpan soils, buckwheat will leave all other soils mellow for a short time. This lightened soil can be taken advantage of immediately but immediate planting of the next (non-buckwheat) crop or the changes can be made more permanent when followed with a planting of something like ryegrass that forms a mycorrhizal root system.

Buckwheat nourishes the native and farmed pollinators. Recently, an alarming trend of unpredictable pollination damaging the yields of insect-pollinated crops has become apparent (Source, page 41). Buckwheat can be grown directly as a honey crop for beekeepers, or alongside other high value crops that require insect pollination. In the latter scenario, buckwheat attract the pollinators to the other crops to encourage thorough pollination.

Lastly comes the beneficial nutrients. Buckwheat is rich in protein at 18% crude, typically around 12% bioavailable (Source) making it an important source to those who do not consume much animal proteins. It’s high amino acid content is even more important as most cereal grains lack these important nutrients; most notably lysine, threonine, tryptophan, as well as non-amino acids in tannins and fiber (source). Thus buckwheat can supplement the nutrition of grain noodles, breads, etc. and most resources I have read recommend 20% replacement of wheat flour in baked goods or 50% in pancakes. Apparently buckwheat pancakes are delicious and uniquely flavored. I can’t wait to try them!

In terms of animal feed, lysine cannot be synthesized by animals meaning it must be sourced in feeds. As a result, lysine has become the limiting growth factor in animals raised for meat. Including buckwheat in feed rations supplies lysine among other nutrients and limits the need for lysine produced industrially via genetically modified bacterial fermentation which is now a $1.22 billion dollar industry.

To conclude, this plant conditions the soil, suppresses weeds, depletes the stored seed bank of weeds in the soil, boost nutrition of common foods/feeds, provides honey and encourages pollination of its neighbors. I think it is worthy of high praise in the organic gardening world.

PS: Buckwheat hulls do not conduct heat as much as many furniture fills. They are gaining renown as producing cool pillows when used as fill compared to many synthetics. However they contain an allergen that can aggravate asthma if you suffer from that condition. I am certainly going to experiment with this as well because I am always searching for the cool side of the pillow at night!

Cornell University has the most extensive buckwheat resource I have found.


Idle Brainstorm: Biochar, greenhouse and aquaponics

I’ve previously published a much unpolished brainstorm regarding the viability of aquaponics in areas like my Shenandoah Valley that experience a hard freezing winter and how to make the prospect more viable. Previously, I brainstormed about tapping into geothermal energy by sinking the domed transparent greenhouse into the side of a south facing hill with the mass of the earth serving to help regulate temperatures. As always, the energy required to provide heat to keep the systems working negates any benefit in year round production…and then some.

Since publishing the aforementioned post, I’ve brainstormed enough additional tidbits that I believe warrant another post. In order for the fish to survive the winter, the aquaponics system needs to be heated. There are many biological processes that produce heat that could be used singularly or in tandem. Due to the living nature of these processes, if one goes down or the temperature drops too far, they will all fail which would be the greatest weakness in this system.


Yeast converting sugars to primarily alcohol and carbon dioxide is an exothermic reaction meaning it also releases heat as a byproduct of the reaction. If this process occurs in a closed greenhouse, the carbon dioxide will feed the plants via photosynthesis while the heat produced can extend the growing season. I have yet to determine how much sugar would be need to be fermented to have a noticeable effect, but it is an option worth considering. As fermentation is carried out by slightly fickle microbes, the temperature would have to remain above 55-60 degrees for this process to be viable.

Composting (Decomposition)

The same heat that gardeners everywhere encourage in their compost heaps in order to speed the process of decomposition could be harnessed within a greenhouse. That heat indicates that decomposition is also an exothermic process. In fact this same logic is applied to winter husbandry of livestock…at least in the sustainable agriculture world.

Manure packs are formed in the winter when animals are kept on deep bedding. In order to preserve all of the nutrients in the livestock waste, more carbon bedding is added as needed. As the pack grows and anaerobic decomposition begins, the heat produced is enough to keep animals comfortable. Pigs are even better suited to this process when natural instinct leads to  the front-end loader built into their noses to burrow, turning the pile and creating aerobic decomposition. With animals like horses with dry manure, this might even create a fire hazard as it gets so warm but the wet manure of pigs negates the threat. Chickens also create a hotter aerobic environment in their bedding when they scratch for spilt feed, or if the pack is on bare earth, when they scratch for worms. Polyface farms just down the valley from my own reports that worms are active through the winter with this method.

Even if manure is not the primary source of nitrogen in the compost, there are still plenty of sources of organic matter from both on and off the farm: grocery store produce waste, spent coffee grounds from the local shops, restaurant waste, fallen leaves, household waste, etc. Like fermentation, the living microbes responsible for decomposition require heat to remain active through the winter.


Biochar is simply charcoal. I assume the added prefix is to make it sound more appealing as a soil amendment, one of many calimed biological uses for farms. Where I stand on biochar…I’m not sure yet. I’ve been researching and trying to find reliable studies but remain unconvinced. The fact that one of the first commercial biochar production facilities was shut down in a Ponzi scheme investigation (Source: FBI) certainly did do any favors in convincing me of all the claims made.

Regardless, I’ve still considered making my own charcoal for outdoor cooking. Any claims made of biochar proven by future science would be a bonus. There are some waste products of the farm that I don’t want to compost. Cedar, walnut and tree of heaven all contain compounds that inhibit the growth of many plants thus I am weary of adding the scraps that cannot be turned into firewood to compost. Charcoal is a viable alternative. My apprehension regarding actively harvesting biomass or diverting biomass from other uses solely to produce biochar would be lessened if the heat produced was put to a secondary use.

Unlike the other two processes, making charcoal in the greenhouse would not done by a living organism. Thus it would likely have to be the primary source of active heat while the living processes provide supplemental heat.


Could a combination of geothermal, solar, fermentation, decomposition and charcoal production keep a greenhouse or aquaponics environment alive in the winter? I’m not sure without doing some intense math. If I ever get the time or resources to dispose on the project, I might just give it a shot!

Also, have you thought of any additional, low input heating sources I have not considered? If so, please share!


Sulfur application for organic blueberries

Well, I didn’t do myself any favors with my poor tracking of soil pH before planting the blueberries. Between the clay soils and overestimation of the buffering effect of decaying organic matter placed into raised beds, my soils were slightly alkaline at the time of planting in the spring. With fall approaching, it was time to apply sulfur while the soil microbes are still active.

Sulfur is not biologically active as its approval for organic uses may insinuate, but it is literally just an element from the periodic table. It is mined and shipped out in its pure form (if you are lucky enough to find pure sulfur) or in my case, cut with 10% inert fillers.

Now it is time to calculate the application rates which I have discussed before. Below are the tables from that discussion. Ohio State University Extension is the source of the Table 1 while Table 2 is the same but with my calculations converting the application rates from pounds of sulfur per acre to pounds of sulfur per 1000 square feet.


Table 1. Rates of elemental sulfur required to decrease soil pH to a depth of 6 inches.
Desired change in pH Application rate based on soil texture1
Sand Silt loam Clay
———————– lb S/A ———————-
8.5 to 6.5 370 730 1460
8.0 to 6.5 340 670 1340
7.5 to 6.5 300 600 1200
7.0 to 6.5 180 360 720
8.5 to 5.5 830 1660 3310
8.0 to 5.5 800 1600 3190
7.5 to 5.5 760 1530 3050
7.0 to 5.5 640 1290 2580
1 Assumptions—cation exchange capacity of the sandy loam, silt loam, and clay soil are 5, 10, and 20 meq/100 g, respectively; soils are not calcareous.


Table 2. Rates of elemental sulfur required to decrease soil pH to a depth of 6 inches.
Desired change in pH Application rate based on soil texture1
Sand Silt loam Clay
———————– lb S/1000 sq. ft ———————-
8.5 to 6.5 8.5 16.8 33.5
8.0 to 6.5 7.8 15.4 30.8
7.5 to 6.5 6.9 13.8 27.5
7.0 to 6.5 4.1 8.3 16.5
8.5 to 5.5 19.1 38.1 76.0
8.0 to 5.5 18.4 36.7 73.2
7.5 to 5.5 17.5 35.1 70
7.0 to 5.5 14.7 29.6 59.2
1 Assumptions—cation exchange capacity of the sandy loam, silt loam, and clay soil are 5, 10, and 20 meq/100 g, respectively; soils are not calcareous.

I’ve brought my blueberry beds from 8.6 to just below 7 with other efforts this year. For that 120 square foot bed, the calculations are as follows:

[Application rate for clay soils to lower pH from 7 to 5.5] * [Area of blueberry bed] / [Area of application rate]

[59.2 pounds] * [120 square feet] / [ 1000 square feet] = 7.1 pounds

Then for the remaining unplanted bed around 8.5 pH:

[Application rate for clay soils to lower pH from 8.5 to 5.5] * [Area of blueberry bed] / [Area of application rate]

[76 pounds] * [120 square feet] / [ 1000 square feet] = 9.1 pounds

So, 16.2 pounds total.

The process:

Buy agricultural sulfur. It was $22/50 pounds at my local feed store.

Weight out the amount needed from the above calculations

Apply sulfur

Give the soil microbes a few months to digest the sulfur and lower the pH

The last picture shows the sulfur on top of the mulch, spread lightly around plants and their active roots while applied more heavily in the spaces between plants, which is only done by necessity. In the unplanted blueberry bed the sulfur was applied evenly to bare soil then covered by mulch.

From this point on, test the soil every year or every other year. Repeat the above process as needed!