Steve Charter is an innovative rancher with a cattle operation north of Billings. For the past couple of years he has been intensively studying how we can rebuild our soil biology where degraded from the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and over-tillage. Steve even traveled to Australia to see what measures are being used there for regenerative agriculture. To this end, Steve has developed a worm “ranch” on an industrial scale in order to harvest the vermicastings.

worm farm 2

ALERT: An invasive Asian worm (Amynthas) is present in the US and can cause extensive dam-age. Do your research to avoid acquiring or releas-ing Amynthas worms. http://blog.uvm.edu/jgorres/amynthas/
More to follow.

Steve and his partner, John Brown, use a bulldozer to create worm beds 50 yards long and two feet deep with mounded sides. He uses red wrigglers, the worm of choice for composting. He places a layer of straw in the bottom of the trench, then puts the worms and compost mix on top. He cold composts a mix of wood chips, straw, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, juice bar pulp, beet tailings, cow and horse manure, and weeds to feed the worms. He strives for a mix of carbon and nitrogen similar to compost, but the mix doesn’t have to be as exact as it does with compost because he is not trying to heat it up, just feed the worms. If it does heat up, the worms can go deeper in the soil to escape the heat. The worms stay in the trenches because that is where the food is. Steve doesn’t feed the worms in winter, so if they get too much food in summer, they can munch on that over the winter.

In November, he prepares the worms for winter. He covers the trenches with straw, then a water-permeable tarp, then bags of leaves. The worms lived through the winter last worm farm 3year. They are not completely dormant and can live as long as the temperature doesn’t drop below about 40 degrees F. He hasn’t been able to check the temperature this year because there is too much snow, but he is hopeful that the worms are alive.

When there is a demand, Steve harvests the vermicastings (worm “poop”). Steve and John feed the worms at one end to get the worms to move to the end of the trench, then dig up the vermicastings, which are spread to dry. The result is then put into a trummel, which tumbles the mix and sifts out larger pieces like sticks and wood chips. This product can be bagged and used directly in soil to stimulate and restore the biology of the soil. It is not a fertilizer per se but rather food for the soil web of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods. Compost also helps this process of restoration—adding the worm castings speeds up the process.

Another way to use the castings and make the beneficial effects go further is to make a worm tea or worm extract. To make tea, the castings are put in water with a feed like molasses and then aerated. The tea must be used within hours of preparation to keep it from going anaerobic so this process is more useful for a home operation. For an extract, the castings are added to liquid and aerated but not fed. It is more stable before application than the tea and thus more useful for a commercial operation.

Gardeners can have a worm operation and use the castings and tea or extract for lawn and garden, but need to know how to balance the feed to encourage various microbes depending on use of the final product.

Steve has primarily used his products to develop the soil on his own ranch, but will sell the castings and extract at some point commercially if all goes well. He is interested in continuing to study ways to re-store the soil and educate others on the problems and solutions. For example, he is also learning about ways to sequester more carbon in the soil. Restoration agriculture is a sideline for Steve whose primary business is cattle ranching, but helping to restore the earth is a deep passion and commitment for him and he is grateful that he can put his ideas into action on his ranch.

– By

Ann Guthals


Calendar Items for Spring


APRIL 28 ~ GREAT AMERICAN CLEANUP DAY ~ 36 N 23rd, Billings ~ 9 AM




May 8 ~ BLGS LIBRARY ~ BEE TALK ~ 3:30 – 5:00


The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health By David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle bought a modest house in Seattle. They discovered that the glaciers that passed through that part of the world long ago left them with very little topsoil in their backyard. They began dumping a lot of organic matter in their space and creating a manure tea to feed their plants. After a few years, they had soil and lush foliage to show for their efforts.

David is a geologist, used to thinking in geological time. It surprised him that by actively adding organic matter to the soil, he and Anne could actually speed up the rate of soil creation relative to nature’s timeframe. They both began to wonder how this could be and this led them to discovering the hidden world of soil microbes and their relationship to plants.

Of particular interest to gardeners is the first part of the book that so clearly explains in an accessible manner the interactions between the microbes in the soil (primarily bacteria, protists, and fungi) and plants. Research over the last 10 to 20 years has illuminated the incredible partnerships between beasties we can’t even see and plant roots, resulting in a sharing of resources and information in ways not previously dreamed of.

David and Anne make a very strong case for encouraging these relationships by not tilling the soil and adding a lot of mulch. And they illustrate what is lost when the opposite happens – soil is disturbed by tilling and plants are fed chemicals, resulting in basically sterile soil.

When Anne suffered a battle with cancer, the two began to look more closely at what supports human health and drew parallels between a healthy human gut and healthy soil, in that there is much more communication between the microbes in our guts and our immune system than we had imagined and keeping this inner microbiome healthy is very important to our overall health, as is supporting healthy soils.

Along the way they describe how microbes were discovered and how for a long time were seen only as enemies, aka disease-producers. So our first knowledge and awareness of microbes was in a battle against pathogens. There follows a long section on what the good microbes in our gut do and how to encourage them. While the center section is long and detailed, it is important in that it makes a case that the vast majority of microbes are beneficial and we need to cultivate them.

Page 254: “A couple of decades ago, it would have sounded crazy to argue that plants and microbes in the soil run a biological barter system that functions as a plant‘s defense system and allows us to harvest nutrient-laden plant foods essential to our health. Even more unbelievable would have been the notion that bacteria communicate with our immune system, helping it to precisely mete out inflammation to repel pathogens and recruit helpful commensals. These surprising new truths carry fundamental implications for the way we view, and should treat, a wide range of seemingly unrelated maladies. In medicine, as in agriculture, what we feed our soils—inner and outer—offers a prescription for health forged on the anvil of geologic time….Put bluntly, many practices at the heart of modern agriculture and medicine—two arenas of applied science critical to human health and well-being—are simply on the wrong path. We need to learn how to work with rather than against the microbial communities that underpin the health of plants and people.”

One of the best parts of this book is the readability and ease of understanding of complex topics. If you are on a quest to better understand our soils and the importance of cultivating their health, this is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals


Decoding Botanical Latin

Posted by Helen Yoest on December 20, 2014

Botanical Latin for many home gardeners can seem overwhelming, and indeed at times the system seems to have overwhelmed the keepers of the flame. But if you break down each aspect of the Latin name – each string of words to describe the plant – the language makes sense even for us non-botanists.

The Botanical Latin that scientists use today is very different than what was once used by Roman scholars. Since that time, and well into the 18th century, Latin was the language of international scholarship. It only made sense it was the vocabulary used in scientific circles.

Read more at: http://gardeningwithconfidence.com/blog/2014/12/20/decoding-botanical-latin/

Gardening Series Billings Public Library: Jan | Feb | March 2018

Wednesday, Jan. 24th – Backyard Bird Feeding with Kathy from Wild Birds Unlimited, 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm, Community Room. Bird feeders can be an important food source during winter. When severe weather impacts wild food supplies, some species of birds will turn to feeders as a critical food resource. It is during these times that feeders play their most vital role. Learn how a thought-ful, winter feeding station may mean the difference between life and death for these birds.

Wednesday, Feb. 7th – Billings Bloomers African Violet Society, (between 4:00 and 6:00, TBD), Community Room.

Tuesday, Feb. 27th – Houseplants with Gainans, 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm, Community Room.

Thursday, March 15th — Zoo Montana Botanical Garden and Plant Selection Program with Teresa Miller Bessette, 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm, Community Room.

METRA Square Foot Garden Results

This year, once again, we had some stiff competition with our METRA Square Foot Garden Contest. There were 5 competition 4×4 beds this year. You all made our garden demonstration something to check out. There were many very nice compliments this year.

Special thanks to all of you who competed: Cindy Roesler, Joann Glasser & Pat Morrison, Rick Shotwell, Roy Wahl, Susan Carlson And the winners are: First Place – #1 Cindy Roesler ($50 Second Place – #5 Joann Glasser and Pat Morrison ($25) Third Place – #2 Rick Shotwell ($10).

Thank you to Mary Davis and Rosemary Power for being our honored judges. Our judges suggested sharing with you what they will be looking for next year. Here’s the list: 1. Well thought out design 2.Space utilization 3 Creative plant choice 4.Plant health 5.Care & maintenance of garden 6.Overall attractiveness 7. Labeling/Educational 8. Mixture of color, form & texture.

Please consider being a part of the 4×4 Garden Contest in 2018. There are 2 available competition beds that you could use to share your ideas of what could be done in a small space garden.

Submitted by Amy Grandpre