Homestead Junction

Mason Jar Soil Testing May 12, 2015 09:13

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Soil settling away happily
Gardening isn't really a new concept for me, and I usually tend to think of myself as fairly well versed in it, but the past couple of years have exposed a pretty glaring blind spot in my gardening knowledge: Soil.
I know, I know. You're thinking "Soil is kind of the basis of gardening", and you're right! It seems like I should know plenty about it, but the reality is that I've spent most of my adult life living in apartments, forced to garden solely with containers and pots. So, much as I daydreamed about my eventual future acreage, up until recently my experience with soil has been limited to the types and sizes that can be purchased and then carted home on the bus. I never had to worry about what sort of soil I was working with, because it was always fresh and new, full of nutrients, and neatly labelled on the shiny bag it came in.
And then I moved into a house with an honest-to-goodness yard. A yard with a big garden plot, one that had seen little to no attention for years and looked pretty sad. As I pointed out to my landlord, even the dandelions didn't want to grow there.
Google is my friend, and that's how I found out about the mason jar soil test. It's one of the easiest and simplest ways to see what kind of soil composition you're working with, and to find out what you might need to add to the soil in order to make it healthy.
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The mason jar soil test
Soil is, at its most basic, made up of 3 parts. Sand, Silt, and Clay. You can also have chunks of rock or other debris in there, but we're ignoring those for the purposes of this test. Sand is the largest particle, silt the middle, and clay the smallest. An ideal garden soil (called loam) is approximately 20% clay, 40% silt, 40% sand. Knowing how far you are from that perfect balance will help you to decide what sort of amendments need to be added.
To check this balance, all you need is an old mason jar (taller is better - I used asparagus jars), a tightly fitted lid for it (I have a recent obsession with the plastic storage lids, so I used one of those), a way to sift out rocks and debris (a soil screen or wire mesh works well), a ruler, and some water.
Scoop up some soil from your garden bed and sift it through your screen. You can choose to take samples from multiple areas and combine them in one test, or do several jars for each area to get a more specific idea of soil composition. Fill your jar(s) about 1/2 to 2/3 full of soil, and then fill the jar almost to the top with water. Leave a little bit of headspace so that you can shake it up well.
Tighten the lid and shake the jar vigorously for several minutes until all the soil is well distributed in the water, and then set it aside for several hours. Resist the urge to pick it up and turn it. You'll have to start the process over. (Yes, I speak from experience).
Once all the soil has settled down into stratified layers, you can use your ruler to estimate how big each layer is. Sand will be the bottom, heaviest layer, Silt in the middle, and Clay at the top. I was lucky enough to be using a jar with measurements on the side, so I skipped the ruler step.
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the proverbial well rotted manure
As you can see from my photo, my soil is more of a 20/20/60, instead of a 20/40/40. This means I have sandy soil, which is often lacking in nutrients, microbial activity, and doesn't hold moisture well. Luckily, the easy answer to this is to add more organic material - like compost! Cover cropping is also another valuable way to improve sandy soils. Since I don't have an active compost bin yet, my temporary solution involves a very familiar tactic.
I'll be busing home with a bag of lovely compost.
-Kate

Guest Contribution: Composting your Pee February 04, 2014 14:11 4 Comments

Follow guest contributor Dylan Rawlyk at his blog, http://tothrowforward.blogspot.ca.

For the past while I've been composting my pee as a way to increase nutrients for my garden, to reduce my water use, and to reduce my wastewater impact. I plan to walk you through my current method, as it works quite well. This may not be for everyone, but some of you may become inspired.  

Why I compost my pee instead of flushing it down the toilet. Our toilets are filled with drinking water. This water comes from three finite reservoirs near North Van that are replenished solely from snowmelt and rainfall on the mountains, and is treated before reaching our toilets. How ridiculous is this that we use a finite resource, treat it with more resources and energy, waste it, to just treat it again, and leaving the end wastewater not as clean as it started! Furthermore, as our population in Metro Vancouver continues to grow, our water treatment and wastewater treatment centres are strained, needing very expensive upgrades and expansions to keep the system running properly. By composting our pee, we can reduce our water consumption, while keeping our nutrients in a closed-loop system benefitting our gardens, instead of polluting our waterways.  

What you’ve got to know. Urine by itself is sterile, as opposed to poo, making it easier to safely compost. It is also very high in nitrogen (great for plants), and is water-soluble. So if we were to just put our urine on our garden, there’s a high chance we’d overdo it with nitrogen, and might kill the plants, and any excess nutrients will leach from the garden with water infiltration, and will be lost, potentially polluting other areas. So, to compost your pee, we need to get it in a less mobile state, and reduce the nitrogen concentration. Typically, an efficient compost system relies on having a balance of carbon and nitrogen. In compost, this means balancing your waste products to have a 20:1 – 35:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio. Urine, by itself has a carbon:nitrogen ratio of about 0.8:1. That being said, we must add a lot of carbon (woody material) to balance it properly for our compost systems. So I’ve experimented with multiple woody materials. I suggest using waste products from around you if possible, such as twigs, fall garden stalks, local sawdust, leaves, maybe even cardboard. These days, I’ve been using a bought carbon source. It’s cheap, compacted so takes up less space, and works extremely well. It’s called pet bedding or wood pellets. It’s very easy to see when this carbon source is balanced with your urine because it expands, and all the liquid should be absorbed into the sawdust. Lastly, if you are dumping the pail often, and balancing your urine with carbon, this will not stink up your bathroom.

How I do it. 1)   Find a large pail that can be stored next to your toilet. 2)   Cover the bottom of the pail with your chosen woody material. 3)   Urinate in the pail. If you prefer to sit when you pee, you can attach a toilet seat to the pail. 4)   Put a handful of woody material on top. 5)   Repeat until pail is close to full. 6)   Dump it onto your compost pile. 7)   Repeat.

Things to keep in mind. This is a very simple process and if you are a bit off on your nutrient ratios, your compost system should be able to still balance it out. It is very important to have a diversity of waste products going into your compost system, so don't overload it with your urine mix. Make sure you have other waste products going in too. It’s helpful to have a wingdigger or similar tool to mix and aerate your compost bin. It’s good to have the balanced urine/wood mix distributed within your compost system. The nutrients found in our urine came from the food we ate, which in turn came from farms and gardens. Composting our urine returns those nutrients back to where they came from, instead of them getting lost to the ocean. Experiment. Observe. Learn.


Touring an urban oasis July 05, 2013 15:10 1 Comment

A few weeks ago I visited my friend James Sztyler at his Kitsilano garden.  It's such a gem I wanted to share some photos - a great example of what is possible on a small urban lot. 20130705-150658.jpg Rows of pots ranging from 5-20 gallons sit in rows on the mostly-paved lot. A fiend for tomatoes, James makes plenty of room for these heat-lovers (foreground). Over 1000 heads of garlic are planted directly in the earth along the fence. 20130705-150715.jpg A fully-enclosed greenhouse keeps seedlings warm (centre) and a long hoophouse by the fence keeps the rain off more tomatoes. 20130705-150752.jpg

James saves as much seed as possible from year to year. You may remember seeing his tomato seeds at the shop! 20130705-150821.jpg Tomatoes under the hoophouse are ready for some support. James uses a system of attaching strings to the the base of each plant, and winding the string around the plant until it is secured at the top. This beats buying 100s of tomato cages! 20130705-150905.jpg Garlic growing in a thicket. 20130705-150944.jpg

James proudly shows off the long leaves of one of several garlic varieties. By now they're probably taller than he is!


RIP little fellas, I'll remember you as Fish Soup February 27, 2013 19:11

I'm not going to say where I got these deceased fish, but with a little sleuthing our informed readers will probably guess.  They died before their time, and it was a bummer. But that's nature, and in nature nothing goes to waste.  In early January a guest speaker named Karl Hann described how he would ferment fish carcasses for a year or more to obtain the ultimate organic fertilizer: fish soup.  Rich in nutrients and beneficial microogranisms, this not-as-foul-smelling-as-one-might-think brew is ambrosia for the garden.  So, lemons to lemonade and all that.

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Sorry buddy :(

  

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The tomb is prepared.  A thin layer of bokashi (wheat bran inoculated with effective microogranisms) lines the bottom of an old HDPE palm oil pail.

  

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The fish get a shroud of bokashi.  This should help balance the carbon:nitrogen ratio and ensure that beneficial microbes break down the fish.

  

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The tomb is sealed.  And now we wait.

   Karl waits a year or more for his drums to finish fermenting, but I guess I'll check on these fellas sometime in this summer.  Are you all on the edge of your seats?

**Update June 2015**

Did I say summer? I guess I meant summer two years hence. 


Rendering Tallow February 23, 2013 14:00

One day Asia showed up to work with a bag of suet from the butcher.  In this case, we're talking about the leftover fat trimmings from cuts of beef.  They're cheap from the butcher store, or if you eat a lot of meat at home you may have them lying around.  The process is basically the same for other animal fats - pork fat becomes lard, deer, bear, goat and beef all yield tallow, and chicken fat is still called chicken fat.

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Step one: grind the fat or slice it into small chunks.  If grinding, it helps to freeze the fat beforehand- otherwise it tends to get slippery and turn to paste.  We're using a Weston manual grinder here.

 

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Step two: add water and start boiling!  The amount of water isn't critical so just use enough to cover the ground or chopped up fat.  You'll want to check on it periodically and add more water as needed.  You'll notice we did this outside - I don't find the smell to be terrible, but it's pretty strong.  A good hood fan in your kitchen would probably be enough.  We simmered this for two hours or so.

 

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Step three: when you're good and ready or after a couple hours, pour the boiled mixture through a cheesecloth lined colander into a bowl or pot.  All the gristly meat bits will stay at the top and the liquid tallow and water will settle below.

 

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Step four: let the tallow and water settle in to layers as they cool.  The remaining water is there at the bottom with a thick tallow layer at the top.  We let it cool to almost room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator overnight.

 

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Step five: take the bowl out of the refrigerator and scoop off the now-solid tallow.  The watery bit at the bottom will have solidified into gelatin.  Congratulations!  Your fresh tallow will still have a slightly meaty smell, but this will disappear during saponification if you use it for soap making.  We got about 50% yield by weight if I recall correctly; 6lbs of suet got us around 3 lbs of tallow. Hot tip: you can render pork kidney fat in similar fashion to get the best possible lard for flaky pastry dough.

 

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 Step six: deal with the leftovers.  The remaining gristly solids from step three could probably be eaten, but they're rather unappetizing.  We divided them between a bokashi bucket composter and a NatureMill Ultra.

 

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Still step six: bokashi refers to a sealed-bucket method of composting and also the mix of wheat bran and microorganisms used to inoculate it.  Here we're sprinkling bokashi over the gristle to encourage it to break down anaerobically.

  

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Still step six: gristle in the NatureMill Ultra.  This plug-in kitchen composter is supposed to handle meat scraps easily, so we tossed some of the gristle in here to see if it would actually convert to nice finished compost.

 We used our tallow for making natural soap.  We've got some photos which we'll post eventually.  Meanwhile if you're curious, come ask questions or consider taking a soap-making workshop: https://homesteaders-emporium.myshopify.com/collections/event-tickets


Book Review: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living February 22, 2013 13:11

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A full-fledged guide to radical sustainability, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living offers lots of ideas for do-it-yourselfers to get the most out of green living.  This book is the result of years of environmental experimentation and political activism by the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas.  It covers topics such as intensive urban food production, micro-livestock, rainwater collection and filtration, on-site waste water treatment, humanure composting, and bio-remediation of polluted urban environments.  For those interested in off-the-grid living, it also covers energy options like biofuels, methane, wind power, and getting the most out of passive solar gain.  While it doesn't cover every topic in detail, it's a great overview and repository of ideas for urban farmers, architects, city planners, and plain-old homeowners.


The NatureMill Automatic Mechanical Composter - First Look August 26, 2012 19:21

The NatureMill composter is an electric, kitchen cabinet-sized device that takes all manner of food waste - even meat, dairy and plate scrapings - and converts it to safe, usable compost.  Aside from tossing in some wood pellets and baking powder every so often, there's no real work involved for the user.  Pretty cool, right? Maybe you're thinking, "wait - why do I need a plug-in appliance to do what I can do in my backyard for free?"  Good question.  Certainly this little number isn't for everyone.  But it's pretty slick and dead simple to use.  After trying it out for a few weeks at the shop, we're ready to conclude that it's a reasonable and convenient option if you're tired of throwing food scraps in the garbage, don't have access to a full-sized outdoor compost bin, don't want to mess around with worms, or want to compost non-vegan waste. Check out the pictures below to see how it looks in operation.  As always, don't take my word for it!  If you're curious, come see it in operation at the store. Bring some scraps to feed it if you want!

 Our shiny, new demonstration model NatureMill Ultra. The horizontal seam in the front is for the compost removal tray door. The compost goes in the top lid (pictured closed) and you add a few wood pellets and a sprinkle of baking soda from the supply they conveniently include.
Our shiny, new demonstration model NatureMill Ultra. The horizontal seam in the front is for the compost removal tray door. The compost goes in the top lid (pictured closed) and you add a few wood pellets and a sprinkle of baking soda from the supply they conveniently include.

 

 One of the first feedings. We fed it a banana peel and some past-prime greens. It’s also dined on mushed and moldy berries, stale bread, and vegetable scraps. So far it hasn’t gotten any cheese or meat bits, as these have been going into the bokashi bucket we’ve also got going.
One of the first feedings. We fed it a banana peel and some past-prime greens. It’s also dined on mushed and moldy berries, stale bread, and vegetable scraps. So far it hasn’t gotten any cheese or meat bits, as these have been going into the bokashi bucket we’ve also got going.

 

 Here we see the NatureMill in mid-action. This was after we fed it some long-stem wilted greens. It looked like they were going to get all tangled up in the stir bar, but as you’ll see in the next image they eventually broke down OK. Still, next time we’ll probably chop the stems up a bit more.
Here we see the NatureMill in mid-action. This was after we fed it some long-stem wilted greens. It looked like they were going to get all tangled up in the stir bar, but as you’ll see in the next image they eventually broke down OK. Still, next time we’ll probably chop the stems up a bit more.

 

 Hey, that’s looking undeniably like compost! We threw some dried up flower stems in a few hours before taking this photo, but besides those everything seems to have composted nicely. Next test: old cheese. Stay tuned!
Hey, that’s looking undeniably like compost! We threw some dried up flower stems in a few hours before taking this photo, but besides those everything seems to have composted nicely. Next test: old cheese. Stay tuned!

 

 Having passed through the “startup” phase and obtained what appears to be a healthy base of compost, we decided to up the ante. The manufacturer assures us that this unit can handle food scraps with ease, so we fed it half a leftover lasagne that Rick inadvertently left in the oven overnight. Can’t wait to see how it does!
Having passed through the “startup” phase and obtained what appears to be a healthy base of compost, we decided to up the ante. The manufacturer assures us that this unit can handle food scraps with ease, so we fed it half a leftover lasagne that Rick inadvertently left in the oven overnight. Can’t wait to see how it does!

 

 Well, the lasagne seemed to go through moderately well, although it did impart a distinct used-to-be-lasagne smell onto the two day old compost (dark material visible next to the bread and cheese in this photo). For this installment of Will It Compost, we tossed in some heavily freezer-burned goat paneer (tragic, I know) and a couple slices of moldy bread. Pics will follow, but 24 hours later the unit smells distinctly of old cheese.
Well, the lasagne seemed to go through moderately well, although it did impart a distinct used-to-be-lasagne smell onto the two day old compost (dark material visible next to the bread and cheese in this photo). For this installment of Will It Compost, we tossed in some heavily freezer-burned goat paneer (tragic, I know) and a couple slices of moldy bread. Pics will follow, but 24 hours later the unit smells distinctly of old cheese.

 

**Updated January 2015**

For those of you who were probably wondering, YES this unit will compost a whole fish. Here's a picture of what a fish looks like in the NatureMill after 3 days:

 
See any fish in there? No! It's composted.