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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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.

 

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.

HAVE YOU HEARD ?

There has been a lot of discussion about the NEW Roundup for lawns. What is the difference? The new product does not contain glyphosate, that kills most anything green. Be sure that you read all of the label and how to use any chemical. In reading some of the information on the internet (a most trusted source right?) it says it is safe for pets and edibles. Really??? A healthy way of getting rid of weeds in the garden is to hoe (my suggestion). According to the U of M extension, the herbicide active ingredients in
Roundup for Lawns are regarded as more toxic than glyphosate (see
Toxicity of Pesticides). The one advantage would be that it could get rid of nut grass and crabgrass if you missed it in the spring.

Toby suggested a few websites that may help you make a good decision for you, the pets and your children.
http://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2017/04/what-is-roundup-for-lawns.html
http://ianrnews.unl.edu/extension-specialist-urges-caution-when-making-herbicide-selection
https://highlights.extension.umn.edu/content/what-roundup-lawns#.WRobUbcKE70.facebook


Submitted by Sheri Kisch

Here’s the Dirt!

 

Have you tried to grow a hanging basket filled with petunias in hopes it will be a big ball of flowers like the nurseries grow but with little to no success? If so, I have a real easy method to share with you. You will need a 14” across hanging planter/basket with good drainage filled with potting soil, slow release fertilizer and five 4 1/2” “Supertunias”. Why supertunias? They are self-cleaning and they can grow 3 ½ feet in one season. When buying your plants make sure that each one has a bloom so that you are not surprised if you are going for a “one color basket”. Pick plants that are a nice healthy green color. My personal favorite source for finding 4 ½” supertunias is any ACE hardware. They have a local supplier who grows them and offers a variety of colors. Once you have your plants, add your fertilizer and plant one plant in the center of the basket and the other four around the edges. Water in the plants and hang. After a few days pinch back any blooms on the plants. This will force the plant to set strong roots and fill in quickly. Pinch back blooms a few more times depending on how big your plants are or how fast they are growing. The three most important things to growing this type of basket are sun, fertilizer and water. During really hot days you may have to water your baskets twice a day as water is essential to the health of your basket. Later in the season you may have to trim your basket if it gets a little leggy. You can trim the bottom flowers to meet the bottom of the planter. Even though supertunias are self-cleaning, I do clean mine up and may trim a little along the way. If you have no place for a hanging basket, you can use the same process for a small planter that sits on the deck. Happy Planting!

 

Submitted by Donna Canino

 

Photo credit Mississippi State University Extension Service

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DAYTON

After a solid winter in Montana that first warm spell is hard to resist. For some of us it’s the bright packets of seeds that start to show up in stores, for some the dog-eared seed catalogues, for others the smell of waking earth puts us right over the edge. We tend to seek out our favorite places to buy garden or seed starting supplies, and one of my favorites is Harvest Tech.

Harvest Tech 2017

When I first got to Billings (about six years ago) I worked down the street from Heightened Harvest. Since then that neighborhood, 1415 S. 32nd Street West, has changed a little (they have new neighbors) and so has the sign out front. Michael Dayton is now co-owner with his wife, Amanda Williams, and they’ve changed the name to Harvest Tech. Mike owned the business with his brother (its first location in the Heights opened about eight years ago) and in late summer last year bought out his interest. On my most recent visit I found the store to be as tantalizing as the first time I saw it.

I have a greenhouse background so on my first visit I couldn’t help but wish I’d lived closer to this place during those twenty years. One can set up a complete hydroponic operation with supplies bought here, but their real priority is natural and organic gardening. Mike kindly granted me a little impromptu time for a quick chat over the counter. I asked if he was a Master Gardener – he was immediately familiar with the program but he (like me until recently) hadn’t been able to put together both the time and the timing to commit to it himself. As I explained my role with the newsletter, we talked about our gardening roots a bit. Mike doesn’t remember NOT gardening, really – “Mom had a 2000 square-foot organic garden” at their home here in Billings, so it was just part of life growing up. He’s lived other places, too, but never really had the chance to garden anywhere but here.

Mike is an avid gardener of things to eat. His preference is to “grow small”, using pots and containers to conserve space and to give each plant the environment it likes best. I asked if he chooses specific species for container gardening, and he said he really doesn’t and that often he finds the fruits and vegetables, like his tomatoes, tend to be sweeter and more flavorful even though yields might be smaller. His eyes twinkled a little, and then I understood what he meant when he told me his favorite part of gardening was eating… He does prefer to start plants from seed but finds it difficult to stay away from the nurseries with all the new varieties and ready-to-plant starts.

We agreed that one of the most challenging things about gardening here is timing plantings with the shifts between winter and spring and spring and summer. Cold frames and the right protection can help, but one of those fast, late spring freezes can overwhelm your plans quickly and set you back to starting over. Mike mentioned that one of his peeves is wind, which can also wreak havoc quickly, burning tender leaves and drying out even the most carefully watered garden.

Mike likes to use automatic watering, called micro-irrigation when used specifically for pots and containers, to address the problems that wind, drought, and heat can dish up. This frees up time and helps him keep things balanced even in the extremes we can endure in our summer months.

I asked Mike what kinds of things he does to avoid the dangers of gardening, like blisters, sore muscles, bug bites, and heat stroke. He had to think about this one for a minute, as if it wasn’t something that he did on purpose. As we talked he realized that he does several things that probably make a big difference in keeping him out of harm’s way. He gardens in the morning and evening, avoiding the heat of the day, but if he has to be out later in the morning or into the afternoon he wears long sleeves, hats, and sunscreen. He wears leather gloves as a rule, as well as long pants and sturdy shoes. We determined this is probably why he isn’t bothered much by bug bites and stings, sore muscles, and other injuries.

I had a great chat with Mike, and I couldn’t help but look around the store and ask what he thought was going to be a hot item this year. It’s tomato blueberry seeds… Yep, I’ll be back!

Submitted by Corinna Sinclair