WORMS TO REBUILD THE SOIL

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

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Hunting Asparagus in the Wild

Asparagus is easier to spot in late summer when its tall ferny stalks turn a brilliant canary yellow. However, asparagus can be very hard to spot in the spring when the young shoots start popping out of the ground and I find that those lucky enough to have found a patch are very reluctant to divulge the exact location. From what I have been able to gather the best place to look for asparagus in our area is in sunny moist areas along the river, on irrigation ditch banks, on road sides and at the edges of farm fields. If wild asparagusyou are lucky enough to find asparagus to harvest, it is best to cut the spears at ground level and to leave a few stalks so the plant will remain healthy and spread a few seeds. It is also interesting that the asparagus plants we find in the wild are not native plants but are cultivars that have escaped from peoples’ gardens. Another tip that I found online was that the best time to search for asparagus spears was in coordination with the time lilacs bloom.

By Elaine Allard

~ JUST WAITING ~ Picking Asparagus

After what seems like a very long winter, I get that anxious feeling waiting for tender green asparagus tips to peek through warm, dark soil. The garden is quiet except for the rhubarb trying to unfold and the asparagus pushing .

How many times have you thought of growing asparagus and put it off? You could be picking it already, but you thought a 3 year wait was too long. Considering that the plant can live for 25 years with little assistance and that you have already put it off 2 years, maybe not.

Asparagus can be started by seed or by root. It is dioecious, that is plants carry reproductive parts of the male and female. In the 80’s all male (Jersey) varieties were introduced to dominate the female (Washington) varieties. Female plants spend part of their season producing fruit (red berries) whereas male plants produce larger, longer, and bigger yields. Sources differ on which gender produces the larger and most spears.

Asparagus beds can last for decades with no need for tedious transplanting. All they need is a well prepared bed (think 25 years, 5-6 feet deep and almost as wide), full sun, well-drained soil, and a soil test for NPK nutrients and PH (as close to neutral 7 is best).

You can plant asparagus in the garden, raised beds or flower beds as long as they are not shaded. Actually, in the garden they can be used to shade some of the shade lovers like lettuce. Keep weeds at bay and pull those dandelions when small. Remember half of your asparagus supply is below the surface. In the spring rake off any leaves and debris.

Be aware that an asparagus spotted beetle has a reddish body with dark spots. The common asparagus beetle has a dull, blue-black body with six orange-yellow spots. asparagus beetle 1Both larvae are a white caterpillar about ½ inch long. Long black eggs are laid in a row. Both adult and larvae feed on developed plantsasparagus beetle 2 and can cause crooked shoots. Remove leaves and weeds from around the bed to keep hibernating spots to a minimum. Beetles can be hand-picked early in the morning when it is tooasparagus beetle eggs cool to fly.

Harvest [asparagus] by cutting or snapping spears when 5-10”tall, cutting at ground level or before the heads start to open. Take care not to injure buds below. Spears can grow 10” in a day in an ideal crown. The first picking season, usually season two, pick only a few. The second year pick for about 4 weeks, the third year about 6 weeks and after that time you can pick for about 8 weeks. There is no real limit to the number of spears cut. It depends on the health of the plant. Be aware of space, moisture, and nutrients. After the cutting season, mulch with non-acidic materials.

In the fall, leave all the foliage (like bulbs they need the foliage to feed the roots) until it has dried to soil level, then CUT off and put down the second fertilizer of 10-10-10. Your soil sample will determine if you need bone meal, wood ash, green sand, cotton seed meal, rock phosphate or dolomite lime.

Are you ready to try growing asparagus? Or will you wait again?

For more information- https://bonnieplants.com/growing/growing-asparagus/
https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/growing-asparagus/7343.html
http://labs.russell.wisc.edu/vegento/pests/asparagus-beetle/

Submitted by Sheri Kisch

HERE’S THE DIRT: Getting to the Bottom of Blossom End Rot

It is always disappointing to see a tomato, squash, pepper, watermelon or an eggplant get blossom end rot (BER). It is not the end of the plant, though, just the fruit. We typically think a lack of calcium in the soil is the main reason our plants get blossom end rot and the truth is that most soil has adequate calcium especially if it is the soil that you have been growing plants in previously.

To sum up blossom end rot, it is a disorder of growing fruit that causes the fruit’s cells at the blossom end of the fruit to die. So what does this really mean? If a plant has inconsistent watering that is too wet or dry this will affect how the plant will receive calcium and that imbalance can result in blossom end rot. Other causes of why a plant may experience BER are over fertilizing with nitrogen which can promote leaf growth and deplete part of the plant in receiving calcium as the water will carry the calcium towards the new leaf growth and damage to small feeder roots can also affect how the plant takes in water affecting the calcium and contributing to BER.

Some ways to resolve BER once it happens in your garden is to remove the affected fruit and monitor your watering schedule and if the problem persists you should have your soil tested and/or you may consider planting a different variety of that plant in the future. Many times we hear of garden myths like adding tums or Epsom salts as a sure fire way to resolve the issue but they are just that, myths and people probably do see some results because they are watering and paying more attention to the care of that plant. So the big take away here is that water is a key factor in resolving blossom end rot.

Submitted by Donna Canino

Other reading: http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/factsheets/Tomato_BlossRt.htm

 

 

SOIL 101

Evaluate soil. The key to every plant’s health and any garden’s vitality is in the soil. Healthy soil holds enough water, air, and nutrients to sustain plant life and help it thrive. A soil test gives you a valuable analysis of your soil so you know what you need to make it better.

Improve soil. Building healthy soil is a gardener’s most important task. Most soils fall short of the ideal: loose, rich in organic matter with good drainage. Adding organic materials—such as compost, rotted leaves, and peat moss—improves any soil.

From Better Homes and Gardens
Soil tests: B & C Ag Consultants – 315 So. 26th, Billings

Just What is Plant Select and What is Happening at Zoo Montana?

Plant Select is the country’s leading brand of plants designed to thrive in high plains and inter-mountain regions, offering plants that provide more beauty with less work so gardeners of all levels can achieve smart, stunning, and successful gardens using fewer resources and with a more positive environmental impact.

Driven by the belief that the right plants in the right place matter and that cultivating plants in tougher growing environments requires smarter approaches, Plant Select leverages a uniquely collaborative model and highly selective cultivation process to find, test, and distribute plants that thrive on less water.

Plant Select’s goal is to create smart plant choices for a new American landscape inspired by the Rocky Mountain region. Plant Select is a nonprofit combining forces of Colorado State University and Denver Botanical Gardens. I (Teresa Miller Bessette) applied to Plant Select for the gardens at Zoo MT to become a test site. Sharon Wetsch and I drove to Fort Collins in August and received plant material. A new site was cut and the plants were planted. There will be meetings and more plant material in the spring!

Submitted by Teresa Miller Bessette

On Thursday March 15th from 4- 5:00 PM in the Community Room at the Billings Library, Master Gardener Teresa Bessette will be giving a presentation on the gardening activities that are going on at ZooMontana’s Botanical Garden. Make plans to attend to hear more about how the Zoo qualified as a test site for Plant Select and what it involves.