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Why You Should Keep A Worm Bin

Composting with worms is not a new idea, but I think it is a practice that many people overlook or find too uninviting due to the nature of a slimy, wiggling worm. The fact of the matter is that worm composting is one of the most ideal forms of composting for one sole reason: you are producing pure worm castings. What’s the big deal about that? Worm castings are a highly active and beneficial mixture of bacteria, enzymes, organic plant matter and animal manure, and earthworm cocoons. They are rich in nutrients and contain over 50% more humus than topsoil or compost.

worms

You may be asking, what is humus? It’s not the yummy bean dip, I can assure you! Humus is a component of soil, the part made up of decaying plant matter that is absolutely necessary for a healthy, rich, and fertile habitat for your plants. This includes nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and nitrogen. While you can get these things in the form of commercial fertilizer from the garden center, they often have to be diluted or broken down before you can use them. At my farm, we are interested in gardening in a natural and organic way; there is no more natural way to apply a healthy dose of nutrients to your soil than by using worm castings! With them, you do not have to dilute at all. Worm castings are perfectly safe to apply in the hole before transplanting or as a side dressing to your plants. They will not burn the roots.

Each year, when we begin transplanting crops, I fill the dug holes and rows for plants with a handful of worm castings. You can often find these bagged and for sale at the garden center, usually in the organic section. They can also be purchased online. My favorite way to get my hands on worm castings? Create your own! Raise worms in a bin. It’s really simple. 

Worms prefer a comfortable living environment, just like all living things. You’ll want to purchase a rubber bin of some sort - a storage bin works great. You will need a lid and will want to poke holes in the top to allow oxygen to enter as well as for ventilation. There are several different types of worm bins on the market as well that are more commercialized, if you do not feel like creating the DIY version. Once you have a bin ready, you’ll create a bedding for them to live in. I usually create this with coconut coir, a bit of soil from my garden, some grass clippings, dried leaves, and newspaper. Drop in the worms and give them a little bit of food!

What can worms eat? The downside to raising worms in a bin is that they do not eat through compostable materials very quickly. In fact, it can take them over a month to eat through carrot peelings! The process of getting a bin started takes a while, but you receive the castings rather quickly. When you first start out, you’ll want to wait a period of at least 3-4 weeks between feedings before dumping all of your kitchen scraps on them. In a few months, that might be more of what you can expect! Worms can eat most kitchen scraps except for citrus, oils, meat, and dairy. They enjoy fruits the most, I have noticed at least. Banana peels always go quickly around here! 

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My best advice for starting a worm bin is to select the right type of worms to raise. You’ll want to use Red Wigglers over Night Crawlers. Red Wigglers live in colonies while Night Crawlers do not; that means that once a Night Crawler aerates the soil in a place, it will leave and move on to another spot in your yard. They don’t make a great choice for a worm bin as they do not procreate in that way. With Red Wigglers, they will live in the same “neighborhood” for generations. They procreate extremely quickly and you can easily fill a worm bin up with several thousand worms in months. This also means if you relocate some of the worms into your garden or outdoor compost pile, they won’t leave. They will continue to live there! 

If anything, it’s a great new hobby to try this growing season. You may find that you really enjoy having the worms around! They are low maintenance, odor free, and perfectly filled with amazing beneficial nutrients for your garden.

xoxo Kayla

 

Kayla Haupt is a master gardener, blogger, homesteader, embroidery artist, and single stay-at-home mother to her young son, Tad. She lives in rural Iowa on a small farm amongst one of the largest Amish settlements west of the Mississippi River. Kayla hopes to instill the idea of sustainability, creativity, and wholesome living in her son and others. You can learn more about her and follow along with her daily life on her blog at underatinroof.com and follow her on Instagram (@underatinroof) (@kayhaupt). 

A Few Seed Starting Tips You May Not Have Thought Of

The first time I started plants from seed, I actually had quite a bit of success. There were a few friends who stopped by my home that first year to take some transplants off of my hands that I had started, and they often expressed their sadness of how all of their plants had come up leggy. I was confused! What was I doing differently that they weren’t? Maybe I just had a certain touch. Well, you can bet that this year I experienced my first leggy seedlings. I had decided to plant some kale in the second week of February, hoping for an early planting to happen in the garden later in March. I placed my seed tray by a south-facing window and waited, just as I had done the year before. What I did not realize that I started a bit too early, not necessarily for the plant to thrive outdoors, but for the seedlings to thrive with minimal sunlight. February is generally pretty overcast and gray! Seedlings that do not have adequate sunlight are trying their hardest to reach for any light they can get, and if it’s not a lot, then their stems turn all thing and curly. Has this happened to you? Or maybe some other problem? This list of tips is meant to help you get past some first-timer blunders and give you some new ideas for growing strong, healthy transplants. 

tamp down soil in seedling pots

Tamp Down Soil in Your Containers or Cell Packs

This is something that I completely failed at in the first year that I started plants from seed! I can remember kneeling a few beds away from my mother, who was helping me transplant, and listening to her surprised gasp. I looked up to see her holding a tiny stem and bare roots, with the potting soil mix fallen all over her lap. The soil had not been compacted, and therefore, had left a lot of air in the cell pack and not a whole lot of grip for those baby roots. Kind of traumatizing for the plant! 

Pack down the soil in your containers and then press it down a little more. This helps to eliminate air pockets, which baby roots do not like. Once you do this, planting seeds should be a breeze by using a dibber or a simple pencil to make a hole in the center for the seed to live. Cover and continue on!

Moisten Your Seed Starting Mix Before Adding Your Seeds

By watering your seed starting mix before planting in it, you are simply making less work for yourself. This can easily be done by emptying your seed starting mix into a large container like a plastic storage bin and watering until it becomes moist but excess water doesn’t drip out when squeezed. Pack this into your starting tray and then plant. This is a particularly good idea especially for small seeds that may float into the corners or wash away.

Use Bottom Heat To Speed Up Germination

While sunlight is essential for growing plants, seeds actually need warmth in the soil to germinate. This is why propagation mats are made! You can easily speed up germination by several days by setting your trays somewhere that they can receive some bottom heat, like on top of the fridge or over a heating blanket. They need somewhere between 75-85 degrees. Once they germinate, then you can remove the trays from the bottom heat and just leave the rest to the sun!

Remove the Humidity Dome After Seeds Germinate

The same as the heating mat, the plastic humidity dome is only for starting seeds until they germinate. After that, they’ll need air and sunlight to grow healthy and strong. If you do not remove the dome once everyone (or mostly everyone) is sprouted, you could actually kill your seedlings!

Bottom Watering is Best, Especially for Small Seeds

If you are out purchasing your seed starting equipment, you’ll most likely pick up a drainage tray, or the tray that goes underneath your cell packs. If possible, get the kind that does not have any drainage holes! Watering your plants from the bottom up ensure that your seeds will not float or move into the corners of the pack. It also prevents fungus from thriving and disease spreading. Water is meant for the roots of the plant and not the leaves, so allowing the soil to drink up the water as it needs it is a great way to ensure that you are neither over nor under watering. 

Do Not Underestimate the Power of the Sun

Leggy seedlings happen, most often, because they are not getting the amount of sunlight that they need. Even if your trays are in a south facing window, the strength of the winter sunshine will most likely not be enough to get them to grow in nice big leaves and thick stems. If you do not have a place for them to get strong sunlight, then invest in a grow light. A grow light needs to be no more than three inches above the tops of your plants and an LED light works great. 

transplant kale seedlings to larger containers 

Transplanting To Larger Containers May Be Necessary

Seedlings grow fast! Once they sprout their true leaves, or the second set of leaves they will grow, you may have to transplant them to a larger container. By doing so, you are giving the roots more room to grow and ensuring a strong and healthy plant. You may also notice that several sprouts are coming up from one cell in your starting tray. These extra plants need to either be removed or transplanted to their own cell. Letting too many seedlings grow in one cell can crowd the roots and not allow any of the plants growing in it the space it needs. One plant per cell is the way to go! 

move seedlings outdoors before transplanting  

Harden Off Plants Before Transplanting

If you still feel like your plants’ stems are not thick enough, try putting a gentle fan on them or gently running your hands over the top giving them a little shake. This helps them to hold up in the wind later! Hardening off seedlings is essential to ensuring that your plants can acclimate easily to living outdoors in the sun, wind, new climate, and elements. You can do this simply by placing them outdoors in partial sun and just letting them sit. This may mean that have to do a lot of plant shuffling all day, but it’s better than finding a dead transplant in the garden!

Remember, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you make mistakes or something goes wrong. Even with all of the control in the world, your plants may die. That’s okay! The nice part about seed starting is that it’s fairly affordable, and you can try again. Happy sprouting!

xoxo Kayla

Plan for Less Pests with Integrated Pest Management

Kayla HauptWhen I grew my first vegetable garden, I was introduced to a method called "The Three Sisters." It is a Native American style of companion planting, which involves interplanting corn, beans, and squash so that they can all benefit from each other. The corn offers supports for the beans, the squash prevents weeds by shading the soil, and the beans push nitrogen into the soil and provide nutrients for all three. It was an interesting plan, and I couldn't help but become more interested in learning how other plants could be companions and help each other out. That first year, I planted every single one of my beds with companions: basil and tomatoes, potatoes and rosemary, nasturtiums and zucchini, broccoli and lettuce. It was a complete mash up with a very unique and detailed order that only I could really understand. The best part? I had hardly any insect or weed pests that year. 

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Now, it could have been a coincidence, but I was convinced that I was onto something after attending a lecture on IPM, or Integrated Pest Management. It is a common sense, holistic approach to pest management. Rather than use pest eradication, you will find that IPM uses all responsible tactics possible like a gardener's knowledge of plants, pests, and the environment to reduce the number of pests invited into their gardens before using any sort pesticide. Now, while this may sound like it, IPM is not organic gardening. In fact, organic gardening is simply defined by textbook standards as not using synthetic pesticides on crops. Practicers of IPM can still use pesticides to deter pests, but it's often used as a last resort. As a gardener who prefers not to use any type of sprays, I agree with the practice of IPM for this main reason: it is neither feasible nor responsible to completely kill all insects or prevent all disease problems.

It's really as simple as that! In fact, it's almost like a small mantra to repeat to yourself - it's okay to spot pests and to not reach for the spray! For example, I can remember one moment where I found a small army of aphids attacking one of my sunflowers. While I knew that I could have easily found an insecticide to apply, I tried a mechanical control tactic. I pulled up my garden hose and sprayed them off with a steady stream of water. Aphids have very weak legs and strong mouthparts (that's what they use to suck the life out of your plants), therefore they were too weak after the blast of water to walk back up the sunflower stalk. After about two more days of this, they were gone! It was wonderful. 

Pests are part of the natural environment. They are often found in the garden as an annoyance and can include insects, weeds, plant diseases, and wildlife. While they are a nuisance, they are also part of a growing community of insects and biological life in your garden. In other words, that insect pest may be a meal for another beneficial insect. This is where the entire debate on insecticide (and other pesticide) uses come in; many insecticides that kill an insect pest will also kill a beneficial insect, whether through the application or from the affects that it causes. This includes bees, butterflies, moths, lady beetles, flower flies, lacewings, and more. 

Where does that leave your pest issue? There are many control tactics that you can use to keep the pests away, but I believe the best one is planning for less pests early on in the game. That's where the Three Sisters come in. While the Three Sisters is not necessarily a tactic for preventing insects, it does make an exemplary control for weeds.

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PREVENTION

Prevention is the first component of making Integrated Pest Management happen. This is done first by using your knowledge of prior problems to create a better future for your garden. A few ideas would be using exclusion tactics such as putting up a fence or placing chicken wire around the base of a young tree to keep the rabbits at bay. If you have insect issues, maybe try investing in netting, row covers, or sticky traps. It is also important to make sure any transplants you are purchasing from your local nursery look healthy and free from any insects or plant diseases that could potentially be introduced to your garden.

MONITORING

This is also known as scouting, or inspecting your plants carefully over regular periods to check for pests and signs of disease. This is such a major part, and if anything, should be something that you do at least once per week to keep up with any major changes! Look for sick or abnormal looking plants. Search the undersides of leaves for insects, their eggs, or chewed holes. It is important to properly identify pests when searching; for instance, the flower fly is colored like a bee, but has a head like a fly. Their larvae eat aphids and are a good sign in your garden! Know which insects are most likely going to move into your garden so that you can determine what the next step is ahead of time.

CONTROL

My favorite form of planned control is companion planting and crop rotation. One of the best garden tips I ever received was to diversify your garden! Grow many different types of plants. Plant flowers and herbs amongst your vegetables. They are helpful plant friends that can only benefit your garden as a whole. Not only do herbs and flowers help to keep insects away (they don't enjoy the smells), but they also can help flavor your vegetables and provide nutrients to the soil. There are many other cultural controls that you can use such as mulching, crop rotation, sanitation, and timing out your garden properly.

How bad is your pest problem? If you come across a similar situation to what I experienced with my sunflowers, then it's not as bad as you think. There was not a giant family of aphids waiting in the background! If anything, practice the art of fixing the problem as soon as you see it. If you are bent over in the cabbage bed and notice a cabbage worm, pick it off. With IPM, you are basing your entire pest management regimen off of how bad the initial plant injury level is. While a commercial gardener may have more of an issue when it comes to controlling the pests that attack their plants, for the home gardener, it just takes a little bit more time and patience of waiting out the initial attack. 

Integrated Pest Management is a wonderful way to look at how your actions can affect the entire biological structure of the garden at large. With the idea that in order to see less pests you must first plan around them, I think that could help any one gardener to stop reaching for their spray bottle.

Photo credit: Kayla Haupt