Worm Farming

One of the more exciting developments out here at the farm has been the revamping of our compost system. We had thrown the whole thing together out in the field behind the garden with bins made from t-posts and old bunk bed frames. Within these bins, we piled high all the farm’s manure, garden waste, and a fair amount of old vegetable scraps from our local co-op. It worked! Even though we didn’t manage it as intensively as we could, good old Mother Earth always works her magic and we were getting some usable compost despite our neglect. Below is a photo of the old site earlier in the spring.


It was often kind of beautiful early in the cool spring mornings, the mounds of organic material letting off steam from all the microbial activity.



However, we did suspect that there was a better, cleaner, more efficient way of doing all this. So we called our old pal Jesse out at Starr Valley Farms to come out and assess the situation. He scoped out our site and the volume of waste we have, and recommended a simple 8’x6′ in-ground vermicompost bin. We could hardly believe how condensed the set up could be with the help of a bunch of worms!

Vermicompost basics:

  • This is the practice of using worms in a system that helps us break down compostable materials into usable compost called “worm castings”.
  • Worm castings are an especially rich form of compost- boasting higher nutrient values and moisture retention than other forms of compost.
  • These castings contain a wealth of microbes that aide in the bioavailability of those nutrients for the plants they feed. It also contains a special substance that the worms provide that helps the finished compost hold its nutrient value.
  • This results in a highly prized finished product that can greatly improve the health of a garden. In addition to the high nutrient values, it also helps to suppress plant disease.
  • The worms do all the work turning and digesting the pile, resulting in much less work for us.
  • It is so efficient that it means a much smaller, less smelly operation.
  • It reduces pest issues. While open compost piles might invite animals to feast or nest, worm bins are pest free.
  • It’s the gift that keeps giving! Worms will multiply and provide not only amazing compost, but we can also harvest the worms themselves! We can share or sell these critters to interested folks in the community. Worm farming can be successful in any setting- it’s an especially good option for apartment dwellers!

Anyway, our system came together very quickly- a hole dug 2 feet down and lined with hardware cloth, sturdy cinderblock walls, and a lid to keep the light and heat out.



Once it was all put together, we added a good layer of peat moss at the bottom as bedding for the worms.



Then we added 5,000 red wigglers to the bin!



We gave them a little food out of our old compost piles and covered it with some wet cardboard. Easy!



A big thank you to Jesse (pictured below) from Starr Valley Farms for helping us set up such an awesome system. He’s going to be helping us learn about our new wiggly friends throughout the whole season- from basic care and maintenance to how to harvest the worms and the finished castings. We’ll be sure to update on all the ins and outs of this adventure!



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Thinking vertically

There are so many cool things happening in the gardening world. People are experimenting with fun new techniques- all with the aim of better food, greater access to that food, and smarter designs that limit the demand for land and labor. These are designs that free us up to do more with less. Here at the farm we are hopping on that train. Our garden currently occupies about a half an acre. Right now it is designed to feed the clients at our main residential facility (about 25-35 people) with fresh veggies throughout the growing season, and a little leftover to store. Eventually it would be wonderful to expand the garden’s service to feed more of our clients and the public. What if we could gradually achieve this without the need for more space and energy, but rather through the implementation of a smarter design? These are some of the concepts we’re playing around with here at the farm.


Introducing the “Strawberry Barrel”. We saw examples like this on the internet, mostly for people in urban spaces with limited access to land. Why not try it on a farm? It was a simple and cheap project, and will be useful for years to come. We found some cheap food grade 55 gallon barrels on craigslist. 12 of them, all together. We removed the tops and put holes in the sides all around, about 20 holes per barrel, give or take a few.



We also drilled some holes in the bottom for drainage. These barrels were once filled with apple cider vinegar! 



Then they were set out in the garden and filled with soil.



Here is one, all planted up with strawberries. We transplanted them from another area of the garden. In that area, they occupied approximately 1,875 square feet. In general, strawberries are planted about 12″ apart. This vertical method means we fit about 25-30 plants in 4 square feet. Quite a savings! They did go through some transplant shock, but are bouncing back well after a couple of rains. This means we have the entire area where they used to live that can now be used for other annual vegetables. 




We’ll be sure to keep you updated on how this experiment is going. We had some extra strawberry plants that we’re transplanting into some perennial gardens and around the main house, so we’ll be able to examine them in different areas/conditions in order learn more. 

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Back at it!

We’re in the thick of it out at the farm. Everything is greening up and we’re finally getting that much anticipated break in the weather. This winter was long and cold.

One of the things that I love about doing farm work is that we start our own seedlings at the end of the winter. It’s such a welcome break from the cold and snow, to see small green things break out of their hulls and come to life in dark soil.

This year we started varieties of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, swiss chard, collards, celery, kohlrabi, lettuce, parsley, sage, basil, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers.

Outside it was nice to see the garlic we planted last fall coming up through its blanket of straw.

We’re also excited to see the native plants we put in front of the hoop house come up this year. It’s covered with straw now, but soon will be full of interesting plants and blooms! This new garden is meant to serve as a habitat for beneficial insects and to beautify the space. If you’re interested in native plants, check out the Native Plant Nursery in Ann Arbor. They helped us put together the perfect kit for our space and needs.

This spring is looking as hopeful as ever on the farm. As always, we’re looking for volunteers to help us achieve our vision. If you’re interested in getting your hands dirty for a good cause, email gyoder@dawnfarm.org for more information.

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The biggest pest of all…

Quackgrass. There, I said it.

Quackgrass is the archnemesis of our vegetable garden. It’s everywhere, and there is likely no getting rid of it. That’s not pessimism, that’s reality. There is only managing and staying a step ahead of it. Due to the insatiable nature of this beast, there are all sorts of recovery slogans that come in mighty handy during the course of the year. Often it feels like a losing battle, but we keep working at it.

Some quackgrass facts: It is very invasive. This means that it’s not native to this area and has ways of reproducing and growing that make it difficult for the native habitat to keep it in check and maintain the natural balance. Quackgrass spreads either by seed (which is fairly easy to control by just keeping the grass cut), or by rhizomes (the part that is difficult to control). The rhizomes that quackgrass send out are especially hard to manage due to the fact that they are so deep and aggressive. Often, when you pull out a clump of the stuff, it simply breaks the rhizomes and sends up multiple patches of the grass in its stead. Yep, basically that means that if we pull the stuff (or till it), it will simply come back, and this time it’ll be worse. Lovely.

What the heck do we do? There are lots of methods that people use to attempt to control the stuff.

Some will aggressively till the space- which, as we’ve discussed above will simply chop up those rhizomes and send up more plants. So, tilling can actually make the situation worse unless you’re willing to till many times. Tilling so often can upset the soil structure, bio-activity, and nutrient availability in the garden. Those things are essential to the health of an organic garden, so we’ve opted not to till it under. (A note: in an effort to save time and effort this past spring, we tried tilling our garden beds prior to planting. This did save time and effort at first, however we were struggling far more with the quackgrass as a result. It was a valuable learning experience for us, and it’s a mistake I don’t think we’ll repeat.)

Organic gardeners will also use a method of smothering to get rid of the quackgrass. They will cover the whole space in plastic during the hottest 3 months of the year. This essentially bakes the soil and all the plant matter within it. However, this method has serious drawbacks, too. First, you can’t grow anything in that plot during the prime growing season. Second, this method leaves not only the plant matter dead, but also the soil itself (it will kill all that beneficial bacteria and fungi that help our veggies get what they need!). Also, it might not work! Sometimes this method needs to be done more than once.

Another method used is chemical, although that’s off the table for those of us using organic methods. Not only is it toxic, it’s not even very effective with this stuff.

So what do we do? Well, we do some amount of manual removal. If we’re working in a bed and are clearing the soil for new seed, we will pull as many rhizomes as we can and fork it over thoroughly. However, this only buys us some time. What we’ve opted to do is to smother it, but do it in such a way so that we can still grow food during the growing season.

We cut it down low, cover it with cardboard or several layers of newspaper (non-glossy, any tape and/or stickers removed), do our best to make sure there are no gaps, and lay soil/compost on top. Then we plant into it and hope for the best! So far, we have been able to harvest lots of vegetables. It’s also the least back-breaking method to use, and results in richly amended soil and abundant biological activity. We also try to plant densely in the beds to limit space for this opportunistic grass. I hope that over time, with consistency, we will have small patches to deal with rather than large ones. We might even come up with a new and better method for dealing with this. You never know!

For as daunting a task as this is, it really allows us the chance to tap into the philosophical nature of such a garden. We have limited control. We can keep showing up, doing the next thing, one step at a time.  😉

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Harvests, Part 1

We had a slow start to our harvests. First, it took us a while to get everything prepped and planted. Thankfully, that ended up being a blessing in disguise since the unpredictable weather we’ve had included a late frost. Slow to start, maybe, but we’ve been pretty productive ever since. Here’s a peek at what’s been going up to the kitchen since June:

Pictured below- Lettuce mix, pak choi, garlic scapes, and serviceberries.


We’ve got two beautiful and productive serviceberry plants, and we hope to add more in the near future. These berries are sweet and delicious. They look a lot like a blueberry, but are not as tart. The seeds are large enough to spit out or just swallow, but if you happen to crunch one up it imparts a mild almond flavor. So fun! The berries can be prepared any number of ways, or just eaten raw. I believe the clients here at the farm enjoyed them on their cereal every morning for a while.


Garlic scapes. This is the immature flower of the garlic plant. In early summer, the plant sends up a tender stalk that begins to curl. People love to harvest this for two reasons- The first, it’s delicious and gives us a first taste of garlic for the season. It’s milder in flavor than an actual clove of mature garlic, but still packs a garlicky punch. The second reason to harvest the scapes is to help the plant to focus its energy down into the bulb, not into producing a flower/seed. When the plant realizes it won’t be able to produce seed for that season, the theory is that it redirects its energy into a stronger bulb that can withstand another winter. This means that when we harvest the garlic, it will be larger and store better than it would otherwise.


Pak choi. A delicious early green, and a member of the cabbage family.


We also harvested lots of beautiful lettuces until it was too hot for them. Lots of folks don’t realize that lettuce is really a cooler season crop, grown in spring and fall (and, with the help of our trusty hoop house we’ve gotten harvests in the winter). However, in the heat of summer it can be really bitter and difficult to grow. Thankfully, summer brings us so many other fresh options.


Radishes. We grew lots of radishes, and this was not because they are a favorite among the clients! Radishes are actually an excellent “companion plant”. Companion planting is an old method of planting based on the idea that some plants are beneficial when grown near other ones. They grow very quickly, so when planted alongside a slower growing vegetable it can help to deter weeds and keep the garden beds loose and productive. They also deter some pests- like the cucumber beetle. On the flip side, they can be used as a “trap crop”, attracting certain insects. The idea behind this is that, when planted with certain crops, the pest insects will prefer the radish over the vegetable we’re trying to cultivate. Flea beetles are a great example- they love a variety of plants and flowers and can do a lot of damage. However, they seem to show a preference for radishes! So, we plant them as a sort of sacrificial offering in the organic garden.

But then there is the obvious question- What the heck do we do with all those radishes? Well, while some can be eaten fresh, they can be tiresome after a while. So, recently I discovered that they can be roasted just like any other root vegetable. What happens is pretty remarkable! They lose that spicy intensity that so many find challenging, and become tender and mild. Best roasted with a little oil, salt, pepper, and sprinkled with fresh herbs. A perfect side dish!

This year we added two kinds of strawberries to the garden. This year the plants are just getting established, so we’ve had small harvests. The berries we have gotten? Oh my. Everyone agrees that the flavor of these berries is SO much better than the store bought version. We’re excited for the years of berries to come. Also pictured below are peas, mint, and garlic.


Summer harvests were a little delayed as well due to the weeks of rain that we got. On the one hand we didn’t have to water, but on the other it stunted some of the plants and made it difficult to tend to them. Thankfully most things are thriving now. Below are green beans and basil.


Garlic was one thing that suffered in all that rain, but we still got a good harvest in July.


So many cucumbers!


New potatoes, cucumbers, and basil.


Swiss chard.


Summer squash, scallions, and broccoli.

More to come!

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There’s a pest in the garden!

I thought it might be fun (and informative!) to start a new little series here on the garden blog. An organic garden is full of drama. Weeds, pests, diseases… all of these issues rear their ugly heads each year. Rather than grab that toxic spray off the shelf, we’ve chosen to take a slower and safer approach. Organic methods require a little more patience and observation, but will ultimately yield better results in the long run. And so, my aim is to explore some of these common garden issues here, and show how to manage them using non-toxic methods.

First up, a pest! Introducing the aphid. This little guy comes in a variety of colors and has an appetite for all sorts of things. They are small, soft bodied, and suck the sap and life out of many different plants. Not only do they eat away at the plants, but they also spread plant diseases as they go along.

Pictured here is one of my favorite “weeds”. It’s the delicious and nutritious lambs quarters -also sometimes referred to as “wild spinach”. This stuff is so resilient, I’ve never seen it munched on by a pest (other than me, of course). This year a lot of it is affected by these little gray/black aphids. You can see above how the sucking of the sap makes the leaves curl. Below you can see the underside of one of the leaves. They can really make their mark!

Each year, aphids make their appearance. This year they showed up in our hoop house first. Conditions seemed to be just right, with the hoop house’s soil warming up earlier than the outside garden. I saw aphids on my cabbage and broccoli seedlings. Pictured below is a red cabbage seedling covered in aphids. The organization we share the hoop house with saw the little buggers on their pepper seedlings.

Since we use all organic methods, we have to approach these problems judiciously. Since the organization we share the hoop with had seedlings that were for a plant sale, they felt they needed to take more drastic measures. They simply dipped their seedlings in an organic insecticide (a soap solution), and that cleared up the problem. They wanted to be sure their seedlings didn’t needlessly infect someone’s new garden. But for us? We opted for a less time consuming approach. We simply transplanted them out into the garden!

You see, pest insects love weak and vulnerable plants. They tend to gravitate towards plants that are suffering in one way or another. So, the first route I chose was to simply give those plants the best chance at health, transplanting them into the garden with plenty of compost. They are looking just great so far- big and happy.

Now I am observing them out in the garden, and it seems our old friend the ladybug is helping us control the situation even further! They are everywhere, munching away on those aphids. One of the reasons we try to postpone the use of even the organic pesticides is because it can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem- which, in a really ideally designed and well-managed garden will be thriving and diverse and balanced. Thankfully, a lot of the  more invasive organic options don’t upset the balance too much. However, every intervention carries with it risks and benefits. Our first choice is to wait and see how nature and good stewardship can keep things under control. So far so good!

Stay tuned for more posts about pests and diseases and how we deal with them throughout the season.

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New garden projects.

The past two years we’ve been focusing on growing a lot of food for the clients at Dawn Farm’s main residential facility. And we’ve succeeded! Last year we had more peppers and eggplant than we knew what to do with! We still have work to do- figuring out how to balance the needs of an organic garden (and all the pests and blight that may come our way) with the needs of our clients and pleasing their diverse pallets. This will likely take a few years to get right! We also have work to do figuring out the best and most efficient way to store our veggies for use throughout the rest of the year.

We are working this year on expanding the program to serve not only our main residential facility but also Spera, Dawn Farm Downtown, and all of the folks out at our transitional housing. This has the potential to feed over 300 people with fresh organic vegetables grown right at Dawn Farm! Not only that, but we’re going to be working with everyone involved to create a great Dawn Farm cookbook, specifically for use with our seasonal produce and meats.


But we don’t want to stop there. Feeding the clients is our priority, but we also will surely have a surplus that, in the past, has gone to the pigs. Those pigs sure are happy. We thought about it, though, and another idea we have is to start a farm stand this year- a spot where all our excess veggies can find a home with people outside of the farm! This will be located right on the farm, where people can come and see what we’re up to and get some great food- all while supporting this great organization dedicated to helping people rebuild their lives. What could be better?


We’ll follow up with details about the new projects, including the farm stand. Please feel free to comment or send a message with your thoughts or suggestions- they are so appreciated! Also, we’re always in need of good volunteers willing to get their hands dirty!

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Seed ordering time!

This week the seed order goes out, and as soon as they arrive we’ll be busy planning and mapping out each week- starting seedlings, cleaning up garden beds and planting early crops in the hoop house, transplanting seedlings… it will be non-stop activity until late fall! It helps to remember that, because it’s so easy to get excited and carried away when looking through “the seed stash”.

February is such a cold and dark month, so I’m grateful for the time spent with notebooks and seeds and garden books. The garden is perfect in my mind. It’s full of potential! It’s warm, it’s sunny, it’s full of new life and the promise of good food.

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Visioning for 2013

It’s a cold blustery day in January, and so planning for a new garden infuses the mind with warm visions of growth and abundance. I really don’t know what I did to combat the mid-winter blues before I was a gardener!

Working for Dawn Farm has been an incredible experience so far. It is a joy and a challenge- and really, that’s what worthwhile work is all about. One of the best things about my job as the gardener is that I have the privilege of watching clients come through the farm and get to share a little bit in their journey to recovery.

Taking care of a garden and animals is such good work. Eating food that you’ve grown yourself can be immensely rewarding. I only hope that some of these folks who come through the Farm can experience some of what I have in this area.

The goals for this year are simple- I aim to keep growing a garden that benefits the people who live at the Farm. I want to keep working towards a farm that grows in health and diversity. I want to see a farm that feels productive and organized, and, most importantly, feeds people well.

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A new year!

2012 was quite a year for the garden! We had many challenges, a lot of opportunities for growth and reflection, and a lot of homegrown food!! This year we’ve got a lot planned, and I want to do a better job of keeping all of you in the loop. From now on I’ll be doing a weekly blog post here. I’m looking forward to regularly sharing and involving folks who stop by to read!

I figure the best way to start is to pick up where we left off. We accomplished a lot, and I did manage to grab quite a few pictures along the way. So, a visual tour of our last year gardening, and then forward with the weekly updates here in 2013.

Pictured below is our little garden area in the basement of the facility, back in February/March. We started all our own seedlings! It was quite an operation, and thankfully most things survived to make it out to the garden!

Here are some lettuce seedlings in soil blocks. We liked using the soil blocks as a plastic-free alternative. You can read more about soil blocking here.

Below you can see many of our early seedlings hardening off out in the hoop house, getting ready to be planted.

Then we entered one of the hottest and driest summers I can remember. It was tough for the crew to work in that heat. It was hard to keep up with watering and even just general maintenance. Some of our crops just wilted in the heat.

But, as is always the case in gardening, we had a lot of success too.

We had a great garlic crop (see below).

We had amazing groups of volunteers come out and give us loads of support- even in the oppressive heat.

We had sugar snap peas, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, squash, lettuce, beets, cucumbers, etc. We even ate some wild edibles like lamb’s quarters!

We encountered quite a few pests. Our theory was that because it was so hot and dry, many of the predatory insects that we rely on suffered and so pest insects thrived.

Next year I plan to combat the pests by creating a habitat for beneficial insects, including plants for pollinators, and areas for them to rest and get water. We have an organic garden here, so it’s important to us to combat pests without chemicals. It’s more about keeping things in balance than eliminating pests. I saw that theory in action this year by how well most things actually did- most things improved from the previous year. We had pests and some struggles, but we always saw something thriving.

We filled our new hoop house with beautiful heirloom tomatoes. They were hit pretty hard with the tomato hornworm, but we did our best to keep it in check and we had lots of tomatoes to show for it!

One thing that really thrived in the heat was our peppers. They were super resilient and productive. Each plant hung heavy with fruit, and we had bags and bags of them to store for this winter.

We got invited to an event at Zingerman’s Creamery this summer to participate in a picnic for non-profits. There we were able to hand out info about the farm and sell some of our produce. It was lots of fun!

It was a good year, all told. This coming year we have a lot planned- we’re always growing and changing around here, and the garden is no exception! I’ll share more details next week.

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