Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Worm Bin Update

Our worms have been busy eating our kitchen scraps and leaving us wonderful black worm castings. It is time to add a new bin on top of the old one. If you remember my original post on Vermiculture, you will recall I drilled a bunch of 1/4 inch holes in the bottom of the worm bin. This allows any excess liquid to leave the system and helps ventilate the bin. The holes also serve another function. They allow the worms to migrate between bins.

When your first bin is ready to harvest all you need to do is make another bin, fill it with bedding, add some food and place it directly on top of the worm casting in the first bin. The worms will eventually migrate through the holes seeking the new food source. I am not sure how long this process will take but I assume in a couple months most of the worms will have moved to the new bin.

 I sat watching Jericho on Netflix and shredded a lot of newspaper over the weekend. I might pick up a small paper shredder if I can find one cheap because this takes a long time. It sucks even more when you are happily shredding away watching episode 7, season 2 of Jericho and find out the show was cancelled and never picked back up. If my nerd rage had a physical manifestation it would take the form of a laxative Golem. This Golem would enter the CBS studios and lock it down, not letting anyone leave. Eventually the food would run out and the only thing left to eat would be the laxative Golem. Weakened from their long ordeal, maybe the executives of CBS would think twice about following the advice of their shit for brains colleagues in the future.

Okay, now that that is off my chest, I feel much better. This is what all that shredded newspaper shrinks down to once you wet it down. You want about a 1/3rd of the bin full of moist newspaper or whatever you use for your bedding.

 You will want to add some food to the new bin. Check my previous post on Vermiculture for a list of what worms like to eat. I put in a mix of kale stems, sweet potato peels and frozen blueberries. Hopefully this will be an irresistible lunch for our worms.

 Make sure you cover up any food you put in a worm bin. This keeps the bin from smelling and fruit flies from finding your bin.

This is the old bin. It is almost completely worms and worm castings. There are a few undigested paper scraps still in the bin, but they will easily be sifted out when I harvest the castings. 


 Look at how rich these castings look. The worms are healthy, abundant and I assume happy, though I am no worm whisperer...yet.

Now all you need to do is place the new bin directly on top of the casting of the old bin and wait. There are faster ways of separating your worms from the castings but I have plenty of time before I will need all of the casting this spring. Vermiculture is part of my greater Permaculture design plans for our property. I plan on splitting my worms soon and making a whole new system. I want to start a vermiculture system under our future rabbit hutches to compost some of the rabbit pellets. How many worms in your house is enough? All of them.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Heirloom Seeds

Well it is that time of year again. Our mailbox is full of seed catalogs from more than a dozen different seed companies. If you go to any seed company and click on catalog, they will gladly take your address and send you their seed catalog every year. Here are some of my favorites:

Seed Savers Exchange

High Mowing Organics Seeds

Botanical Interests

D. Landreth Seed Company 

Seeds Of Change (Best packaging of any seed company. Sealable seed packs.)

Territorial Seed Company 

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds


Peaceful Valley

Kitazawa Seed Company

Jung Seed

Burgess Seed & Plant Company

Victory Seeds (They charge $2 for their catalog. Electronic version free.)

Terrior Seeds (They charge $5 for their catalog. Electronic version free.)

Some of these catalogs are amazing publications with beautiful pictures. I try to order seeds from as many companies as I can each year. With big Ag companies buying up all the little seed companies, I feel it is very important to support small businesses that are protecting the biodiversity of heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Please consider supporting one of these companies when you buy seed this year.

It's funny, I only plan on buying maybe 3-5 new varieties of seed this year. The reason is this picture. We have over 100 different heirloom seed varieties in our collection. I keep adding to the collection when I should be finding the best, most productive plants for our area. This year I am focusing on what works the best in our climate and what we like to eat. When it comes down to it, don't grow three varieties of okra when you don't like it as a food. Grow what you like to eat first.

Saving seed will be a different blog post in the future. I do save seed, but only from a few varieties I really like. Looking at this picture, do you really think you could save seed from everything you plant and still work a job to support your family? If all I did was take care of the house and garden then yeah I think I could save seed from everything I plant. But what happens when a specific seed variety starts to genetically drift? You get rid of that seed stock and buy more from one of the companies I mentioned above. Here is a great podcast on the subject with the owner of Terrior seeds, Stephen Scott. He and Jack Spirko discuss this topic better than I could ever hope to.

I think this is a good opportunity to talk about the difference between heirloom , open pollinated (OP), hybrid and genetically modified (GMO) seeds. To understand the differences we will need some definitions.

Open pollinated simply means that the plant can be pollinated by wind, insect, bird or hand and produce seeds. Open pollination does not ensure that you will get a seed that is true to type. If you want to save seeds from many of your heirloom plants, you will need to separate them from other varieties of the same plant type by distance, time, or physical barrier. If you use a physical barrier you will need to hand pollinate the segregated varieties. You will see some seed packets with "OP" on it. All that means is the plant can be pollinated and produce seed. All heirloom plants are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

An heirloom plant is typically an OP plant that has been selectively bred by a gardener over years to create a plant that is noticeably different from what you started with. It will also breed true and produce seed if crossed with the same variety. Depending on who's definition you use "heirloom plant" can mean a plant that has been bred and handed down for at least 100 years. Other definitions say 50 years. I am defining it as an OP plant that has been selectively bred to create a distinct new variety. It must also be handed down from one person to another and breed true to type. You can create an heirloom plant in your garden if you are diligent and patient. They are not seeds that have existed forever in the state you find them in now. Some people have it in their minds that heirloom seeds are ancient plants our ancestors saved seed from and handed down unchanged over the centuries.

So with that myth dispelled, I want to focus a little on how awesome and interesting the history of seed saving is.

Lets look at an example. What do cabbage, brussel sprouts and kale all have in common? Well a common ancestor of course. I am not talking in the geologically distant past like we are related to fruit flies, but a much closer divergence. All the plants I just mentioned plus cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, and every color of cabbage you have ever seen, were all bred by humans from one common ancestor, the wild cabbage (brassica oleracea) over thousands of years. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Celts and many more cultures cultivated cabbage over the course of many centuries. All of these cultures planted, harvested and saved seed from these ancient strains of cabbage and created all the variations of brassica plants we know today. By selective breeding, and passing down seed, humans have shaped pretty much everything you see in the supermarket produce section.

Some things just look evil, but when you get to know them they turn out to be okay. So what about hybrids? Some people think hybrids are evil and are on par with, or are GMO's. I am here to tell you that hybrid plants are a natural occurrence and are a driving force of speciation. Over the course of millions of years, hybrid speciation; meaning two different species breeding to create a new distinct species, has been the main vehicle of evolution.

When we talk about modern hybrids, in relation to buying seeds, we are talking about two plants crossed together to create a new plant with positive traits. The seeds of this new plant will not produce true to type and some are sterile. The reason most people plant hybrids is because the crossing of the two parent plants can create what is called hybrid vigor in their offspring. Hybrid vigor or heterosis, is achieved by crossing two parent plants of different heterotic groups to produce offspring that exhibit positive traits like uniformity, increased yields and vigor. These plants are referred to as F1 hybrids. If you see F1 on a seed pack, all that means is you will have a plant that, given the same environment, will typically outperform a non-hybrid variety. The down side is, you can't save seed from them.


So that leaves us with GMO's. What are they? Are they bad for us? Should you care?

Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have had their genes manipulated by humans with modern techniques, in some way other than traditional selection practices. These manipulations happen in a lab using one of these techniques.

  • Agrobacterium
    • This process uses horizontal gene transfer to transfer genes from bacteria to plant cells. Basically, scientist put cut plant material in a solution containing agrobacterium. The bacteria can then insert genes into some of the cells along the cut edge of the plant material. This is a very cheap way of genetically modifying plants. It only works in a small amount of plants though.
  •  Electroporation
    • Bacteria is used in the same way as mentioned above, but the plant cells are electrified to increase the permeability of the cell plasma membrane. This allows the bacteria to cross the cell membrane and insert genes into the cell nucleus. 
  •  Viral Transformation
    • This method, which scares me the most, employs viruses filled with whatever genetic material you want, to infect a plant. The virus sets up shop in the cytoplasm of the cell and replicates the genetic material. 
  • Gene Gun
    • Okay, this is admittedly the coolest of the processes. Gold or tungsten particles are coated with the desired DNA and literally shot into a petri dish full of plant cells. Some of the genetic material on the golden bullets gets incorporated into the plant cells. Scientist then grow out the plant material and see if any of the new plants show the desired trait they shot into the plant cells. 

So should you eat GMO plants? Well unless you go out of your way you probably do every single day. Unless the products you buy specifically say GMO free or you buy Organic foods, you are most likely eating genetically modified food. If you eat fast food or processed foods you are eating GMO's. Here is a short list of genetically modified foods you will find throughout the food chain.

Now on the surface that doesn't sound like a big deal, until you realize that the average grocery store product is more likely to have one or more of these plant products than not. Go to any box of food in the grocery store and read the ingredients. You will most likely find one of these GMO products in it. They are made into a ton of different additives and products. Here is a website with all the derivatives of corn. There is no way I could list them all in this post, I think I would go over the bullet point allotment of blogger. Here is a list for Soybeans. Wheat is poison without it being genetically modified, it is in so many things. That said, GMO wheat is only in the testing stage. There is no GMO wheat currently in the food supply. Sugar beets are made into molasses. Canola oil is in so many products.

 Luckily many of the crops we plant as home gardeners are not GMO. Some have been altered and are in use in other parts of the world. There are GMO zucchini's in the US now, buy organic. Be aware of this list.

  • Golden Rice (Scheduled to be on the market by 2015)
  • Sweet Peppers (Grown in China)
  • Tomatoes (Grown in China)
  • Potato (Removed from market in 2001)
  • Papaya (80% modified in the US)
  • Cotton seed oil (93% modified in the US)
 So in conclusion, yes you should care. Analysis of research done by one of the leading GMO producers in the world has found that rats and mice fed Bt toxin producing corn exhibited liver and kidney damage. Here is another paper supporting organ damage in lab animals fed GM corn.

Please think about what you are putting into your body the next time you are at the grocery store. One way to make a difference is hit them in the bottom line. Vote with your wallet. Buy organic and non-GMO foods when and where you can.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Midwest Sustainable Education Conference

My friend Mike and I traveled to Indianapolis Indiana this past weekend for the Midwest Sustainable Education conference. The conference was put on by Jason Akers, Rick Beach and Darby Simpson. The conference covered many topics. This was the course line up:

Saturday 01-11-14

  • Introduction to Permaculture (What is Permaculture)
  • Introduction to Permaculture (How to apply Permaculture techniques)
  • Insects and Their Role in Sustainability
  • The Scrounged Homestead
  • Beginning Foraging & Composting: What You Need to Know
  • Open Panel Discussion Q&A  

Sunday 01-12-14

  • Introduction to Raising Pastured Poultry, Pork and Grassfed Beef 
  • Building A Multi-Use Chicken Tractor
  • Farm and Homestead Infrastructure & NRCS Grants
  • Small Urban Property Design Workshop
  • Marketing Surplus Production, Business Planning & Branding Your Business
  • Midsize Rural Property Design Workshop 

Some of this information was review for me but I learned a lot of new things and some useful tips. I specifically enjoyed the talk by Darby about raising pastured poultry, pork and grassfed beef. After hearing his talk, I realized I have a land and pasture deficiency. =) I will be taking some of the things I learned about large scale poultry tractors and scaling it down to fit my homestead.

Rick's talks about Permaculture and property design gave me some new ideas I had never thought of before. I had never heard of a "scale swale", not only does it sound cool, but it is a great way to hold water next to a tree with minimal effort. Instead of a swale that usually spans a distance on contour, a scale swale is a much smaller berm in the shape of a scale or "U" that is typically on the uphill side of a tree, slowing down and holding water events, saturating the area around the tree.

The hotel the conference was held in was great. Plenty of good fresh coffee was supplied throughout the morning and the breakfast buffet they offered was way above average for a hotel. The bar even stocked gluten free beer for the conference when requested by Darby. I was pleasantly surprised to scan the beer cooler and find Omission Pale Ale. If you are in the Indy area and are thinking about holding an event, definitely check out The Cambria Suites Hotel.

This pic is of Darby talking about hog feed conversion and supplementing squash to feed your hogs. If you have the room and are raising hogs, planting a large pumpkin patch would be a good idea. Also check with local farmers and markets to see about getting bulk buys of overstocked pumpkins or other produce. 

Here I am half cheesing it up with Jason. Looks like we are both trying to smile but failed. Thats okay because thanks to my graphic designer fiance, I learned that I need all the other peoples permission in this pic to use it. So I made them all smile.

Jason and I share a love of storing scrounged material until we find a use for it. In and around my garage you will find stacks and piles of stuff I have collected over the years, mostly for free, that I will use someday, once I figure out for what.

Jason's talk on insects was very informative. People need to start thinking about how they can encourage insects on their property instead of trying to control them with chemicals. As Jason said, you can't have a healthy population of beneficial insects without a population of "pest" insects, what do you think the good insects eat? I almost went to the ER once after being bit on my hand by a wolf spider. My hand swelled up to the point that I couldn't make a fist if you gave me a million dollars. But every time I see a wolf spider in my garden I think, how can I encourage more of these, instead of quick, kill it.

On our property we let strips of yard near the garden go wild so the insects have a habitat to live in and over winter in. On the sides of our main garden area we have perennial flower gardens to attract all kinds of insects and give them a home. Sure we have some "pest" insects, but they never get out of control. I think we have found a happy balance in the few years we have been managing our property this way.

Overall I had a great time, met some awesome people and learned some new skills and techniques. I have to hand it to Jason, Rick, Darby and Jason Bean (AV and internet tech) for putting together a great conference on their first go around. I think future conferences they run will only get better and I hope to attend some in the future.

I always hear it is hard to eat good on the road. While I agree your options are limited, if you do a little prep before you leave you can eat like a king. This is a Paleo bacon, chicken, egg, onion, pecan salad I put together at home before we left. Lunch both days was very good.

The organizers had a box lunch option available. They partnered with a local restaurant to provide lunch. The pork and chicken for the lunches was provided by Darby's farm which the local restaurant made organic meals out of. I wish I had a picture of one of them, they looked very good.

I encourage anyone out there that has an interest in sustainability to take a class or go to a conference. Read as many books as you can get your hands on, and just start doing something. Even if it is a small container garden on your apartment deck or planting a ton of fruit trees, just do something this year. The best teacher is failure. I have made so many mistakes over the years, but I learn something new every time and usually never make the same mistake twice. Knowing where my food comes from is very important to me. Raising my own livestock and produce is the best way for me to be sure the food I and my family eat is fresh, healthy and sustainable.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Giant Zucchini Stores For A Long Time

You always hear about storing acorn, winter, spaghetti and many other types of squash for a long time after you harvest. I had no idea how long zucchini would keep. I left this one in a basket on top of the microwave, in the utility room. Not exactly sure of the date but it was sometime in October 2013.

Normal sized zucchini may not keep as long, never tried to find out, but this giant one is still good.


To give you some sense of scale, this zucchini-beast is sitting on a normal sized bamboo cutting board. It is definitely larger than my forearm.

I cut it open just to make sure it was still good. The flesh was still firm and smelled great. I know there are not a ton of recipes for giant zucchini, but you can always make zucchini bread. Here is a recipe blog post we did earlier this year when some other zucchini's got to large to cook normally. 

So just remember, squash of all types will store well in the right conditions, until you want to use them.