Monthly Archives: March 2013

Natural Farm Wicking Beds

wicking bed fashioned with chicken wire and grass with a blue tarp reservoir. we fill the gravel reservoir but putting a hose to the pvp that is sticking out

wicking bed made by stretching shade fabric around perimeter of sticks and scrap metal poles. blue tarp reservoir filled with gravel holds the water that is poured into the pvc pipe

a wicking bed of flowers and herbs planted in an old rubbermaid container. Holes are drilled into the sides about 3 inches from bottom for drainage

Our wicking beds are planted and awaiting germination.  Two creative Fire and Fragrance DTS students, Keltie and Meagan, built both these beds using materials on site.  The first bed has left over chicken wire as the “container” with dried grass as the walls.  The second bed used scrap metal and wood poles to support a wall of  shade cloth.  The beds are built directly on the ground with cut pieces of tarp as the pond resevoir filled with gravel.  On top of the gravel they laid a scrap pvp pipe with slots cut into the bottom for water to be poured into and fill up the gravel level.   Over the pipe and gravel is a layer of shade cloth to seperate the soil level from the gravel reservoir.  We mixed equal parts peat moss (with a bit of perlite) and garden soil.  Our native soil is actually clay which repels water and does not drain well, so we needed the peat moss for the wicking action.  The advantage of gardening like this is watering is easy (once a week or less) and water usage is much less as evaporation does not steal it away.  It also encourages plant roots to grow deep to access the water.  This method can be adapted to be used for fields and orchards also.

wicking bed with blue tarp as “pond” liner, gravel layer and chicken wire wall. awaiting pvp pipe to be laid, shade cloth layer and soil

wicking bed made with shade cloth. gravel layer finished

joyful wicking bed farmers

Wicking bed concept

We recently built 3 different wicking beds at the Natural Farm.  Wicking beds are self contained raised beds with built in reservoirs of water.   This method greatly decreases the amount of water and time spent compared to typical gardening methods.   They can be built in the ground, in various containers or the typical lumber raised bed.   Here are some sample pictures and a couple of links from the internet to explain the concept.  See our next posts to view the  in-ground and container beds we just built.


wicking bed

wicking bed example

rain gutter self watering garden

front gutter connected to 6 gallon bucket
back gutter connected to rubbermaid with tilapia inside. crude aquaponics

It is finally  planted!!  Two wonderful work duty students from the Medical DTS, Joe and David, have tinkered and labored thier way into our Natural Farm hall of history.  A couple of months ago my gardening buddy, Pat MacDonald, deposited a gift of 3 old gutters and a pile of papers he printed off the internet on gutter gardens. ( I am blessed with people dropping off all sort of presents at the farm.  Tumeric root, stray kittens, mint cuttings, scrap lumber, mangoes, avocado seeds, kitchen scraps for chickens, random seeds to experiment with-I just never know what gifts I may find when I come to work:)   I had never heard of such a thing as self watering gutter systems, but the concept is so simple and valuable I am shocked it wasn’t created a long time ago.  Much thanks to the youtube gutter celebrity, Larry  Hall.  Here is his link if you would like to learn more.

We were able to fit 10 six gallon buckets on each 8 foot gutter.  A 3 inch hole was cut into the base of each bucket and a small basket inserted filled with peat moss as a wicking agent.  Then the rest of the bucket was filled with potting soil (we cut the 6 gallon food grade buckets down a bit because we didn’t need that much soil).  We created our own potting soil with a mixture of peat moss, perlite, raw soil, compost and a bit of crushed oyster shell in place of lime.  The small wicking basket ends up sitting inside the gutter that is continually filled with water and the water naturally wicks up into the soil.  The gutters are covered with black landscape fabric to block the sunlight and algae

Old garden hose used to connect watering bucket with gutter for self watering

growth and we will have a couple minnows in each water source to decrease mosquito larvae.  This method greatly decreases the amount of soil and water needed to grow food- and also the work involved as there are no weeds and the insect popluation is greatly decreased ( we struggle with abnormal amounts of hungry sow bugs in our garden)  To add a bit of experimentation we have two different watering systems.  One gutter is attached to a 6 gallon bucket of water and the other to a rubbermaid container with a couple of tilapia in the water- a super simplistic aquaponics set up.  Both gutter systems are planted exactly alike so we can see if the plants being nourished with fish water have an advantage.  We will keep you posted!

How to build a Compost Bin

How to compost

    Composting is the natural process by which organic material decomposes and is recycled.  Our involvement only speeds the process and allows us to use the finished product for our benefit.  There are 5 key ingredients involved.  Water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and decomposing organisms.  The decomposing organisms are the microbes mentioned above;  they eat the carbon while nitrogen serves as a digestive aid.  Just like you and me, microbes are reliant on a certain balance of water and oxygen to survive.

    You can simply make a compost pile or heap, dig a pit, build a bin out of concrete blocks, wood or wire, use a garbage can with ventilation or buy a fancy rotating barrel.  Choose your method and follow these basic concepts.  You can’t really go wrong- the worst you can do is have a slow or stinky bin- but it will eventually become finished compost because that is the  natural process.  Any mistake you may make is correctable- so be brave and start spinning that gold!

Carbon and nitrogen(often referred to as “brown” and “green”) are the building blocks.  Carbon materials (brown) include dried leaves or grass, chipped trees, sawdust, paper.  Pretty much anything from your yard that is dead and dry.  Nitrogen (green) rich materials include green grass clippings, seaweed, green garden waste (like left over stems and leaves of harvested plants), fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, leftover grains and bread.  Meat and oils are not recommended due to smell and pest attraction.  Animal manure such as poultry, cow and horse is also rich in nitrogen but it is advised to compost it really hot (140-160 degrees) to kill any harmful pathogens and weed seeds.  Human, dog and cat feces are not considered safe to use even when composted.

Start your pile with a 4-6 inch layer of carbon such as leaves or yard trimmings.  The smaller the pieces the faster the process.  Add a 2-3 inch layer of nitrogen rich materials such as kitchen scraps.  Moisten each later before adding more.  There is great variation in how much nitrogen to carbon materials to use.  Some say 1 part nitrogen to 1 part carbon all the way to 1 part nitrogen to 5 parts carbon.  Most people use more carbon (it is lighter so the layer is thicker).  You will know you have the correct balance by the heat the pile generates.

A 3 foot high by 3 foot wide pile is best as a bit of mass is necessary to get the process going, but don’t go over 5×5.  Some people sprinkle a bit of compost or soil in between layers to “seed” the pile with microorganisms.  It is best to make a pile all at once so all the ingredients decompose at the same rate.  We start a new bin each week as we have a great amount of material to use.  Some have one bin finishing and add new material to a second bin in process of being built up and others just have one continual growing bin and use the finished humus from the bottom.  Nature is flexible that way.

The industrious microbes produce heat as they digest, and the hotter it gets the faster they work.  You can feel the heat with your hand and if you are really detailed you can buy a compost thermometer.  The desired heat is somewhere between 120-160, the higher end if using animal manure or needing to kill weed seeds.   The magic key to creating quick compost is turning/rotating it.  This process is usually done with a shovel or garden fork (or a fancy rotating unit if you want to skip this laborious step) and the purpose is to incorporate more oxygen and reactivate the microbes.  We hand turn our piles bi-weekly by shoveling from one bin into another, but it is really only necessary to do once the pile is cooling down.  Turning it and adding some more water if necessary will reactivate the hard working microbes. The composting process is finished when the pile no longer generates heat after being turned- usually a 2-3 month process.

The pile needs to be kept moist at all times, like a wrung out sponge,but not so wet that anaerobic bacteria take over.  If this happens you will notice an ammonia smell.  In this case just turn it and let it dry a bit or add more carbon. We cover ours to protect from the drying sun and wind.  It should also be protected from heavy rains. The other common cause of offensive odor is not enough air in which case you aerate by turning again.   An ammonia smell may also  indicate too much nitrogen- just add more carbon.  If the pile is not heating up it may need more nitrogen, more or less water or just more mass.

The finished product can be tilled into fields and gardens, added to potted plants, used as mulch around trees or even sprinkled over  the lawn.  However you use it, black gold will reward you efforts.


For continued reading check out these websites.

Organic Material – my new best friend

Why compost?


Healthy crops begin with healthy soil.  Before I became a gardening addict I had little appreciation for soil.  In fact, as a nurse I was taught that dirt – an unappreciative and  derogatory term for soil- was the enemy.  It could sneak up and kill you!  In the right circumstances this holds true, but without soil we would not live long enough to worry about sanitation and clean fingernails.  Believe it or not, there are volumes of complicated and impossibly technical (for me) books about the science of soil and soil amending.  It is actually a surprisingly interesting and vital area of study, but I just want to grow food, not be a dirt scholar- so I am sticking to the basics. As I write this I am also pondering the fact that God used dirt to create humankind.  What do you make of that?:)

Considering that soil is so crucial to plant life we have found gardening on a huge rock in the middle of the Pacific somewhat challenging.  Before any success is to be experienced in growing plants we have to start by building up our anemic and scarce soil.  This is where the magic of composting comes into play.  Like an alchemist of old, we can start with a hodgepodge of organic materials and end up with “black gold”.   For all you scrabble players/ vocabulary fiends, the technical term for finished compost is humus.   It is referred to as gold because with healthy soil one can literally produce wealth in the form of crops.

Compost in the garden is a powerful form of OM (organic material).  Anything that decomposes is organic, but finished compost  (humus) is a product rich in available nutrients.  Adding OM to soil is the single most effective amendment.  OM increases soil porosity and decreases soil density so the soil can retain and drain water effectively and roots can form correctly.  OM increases nutrient availability to plants (by hosting microbes) and serves as a buffer to pH changes.  Microbial diversity is enhanced with OM which also serves to suppress the population of pathogens (harmful microbes).  This decreases the need for pest control such as harmful pesticides.  Microbes in the soil include bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes.  These under appreciated organisms are responsible for all the work (decomposing) in your compost bin and they make nutrients in the soil available to plants.

At the Natural Farm we compost in order enrich our soil and grow food, but the other benefit is the huge reduction in garbage and land fill space.  Research has shown the average  house hold garbage bin contains about 23% food and yard scraps-all of which can be turned into useful compost in the back yard with minimal effort.  (Don’t you wish you could pay for  4-12 years of college so you could study garbage can contents?) Leaves, branches, grass, paper, food scraps, coffee, sawdust, eggshells- these are gold in the making.  If you are intrigued- read “How to Compost”