From the Garden: Seed to Pickle

cucumbers

When the harvest comes on fast and plenty, it’s time for pickling! Seen here the Arkansas Little Leaf Cucumber.

It’s the height of summer and our cucumber and bean production is just wrapping up.  These long, warm days are perfect for indoor food-preservation projects, and nothing gets faster results than quick pickling.  The kitchen has been featuring pickled beans, cucumbers, and peppers from our garden in a variety of styles, both sweet and sour. The empty pickle bowls at the end of meals speak for themselves.

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Every good pickle starts with a good brine and includes the freshest produce available.  We pickled two varieties of cucumbers this year, both grown in our garden: the Suyo Long from Asia and the Arkansas Little Leaf.

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Suyo Long Cucumbers

Both varieties work well in this environment. We chose them for their pest- and rot-resistance, which is key in this hot and buggy climate.  Growing varieties familiar to your growing region and climate is a trick of the trade among organic growers.  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange out of Virginia is where we source most of our seeds. Many of their seed growers are farmers in the southeast.

You do your best growing the right variety, but pests often make an appearance anyway. The pickleworm reemerged this year, but we got an early handle on it with the biological pesticide BT.  (Read more about our history with the worm and the pesticide.) When our kitchen is overwhelmed with cucumbers, I’d say we triumphed!

Here’s our recipe for your own home-made quick dill pickle. The whole coriander seeds and sprigs of dill make for a real eye-catcher!

———-Dill Pickle Recipe———-

  • *1.25 C distilled white vinegar
  • *3 tbsp kosher salt
  • *2 tbsp sugar
  • *2 C cold water
  • *2 tbsp coriander seed
  • *6 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • *1 tsp mustard seed
  • *0.25 tsp red pepper flakes
  • *16 sprigs dill
  • *1.5 to 2 lbs cucumbers, cut in spears or sliced in 0.25 inch rounds

Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar in a small, non-reactive saucepan over high heat. (Stainless steel, glass, teflon, or ceramic will work.)   Whisk until the salt and sugar are dissolved.  Transfer liquid into a bowl and whisk in cold water.  Refrigerate brine until ready to use.

Place cucumbers in clean 2 qt. container such as a large Tupperware or stainless steel stockpot.  Add coriander seed, garlic cloves, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, and dill sprigs, then pour chilled brine over the mixture.  If necessary, add water until the cucumbers are covered.  Cover container and refrigerate for 24 hours, then serve; cucumbers will keep for up to a month.

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Summer Cover Cropping in the Garden

Take care of the sIMAG0322oil and it will take care of you. Cover cropping is an easy way to condition the soil whenever a part of your garden is lying fallow. Cover crops protect the soil, build structure to maintain the microbial life within, suppress weeds, add organic matter and keep nutrients from leaching away each time it rains. Some popular summer covers include: buckwheat, sudan grass, sunn hemp, cowpeas, and velvet beans.  Each one has its particular benefits, so choose according to your needs.  (Here is a comprehensive guide to cover crops of the southeast.)

Buckwheat

Buckwheat (photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Some summer covers we’ll be using on LSSI are buckwheat and velvet bean. Buckwheat is a quick-growing cover crop for short sowing windows.  I recently spread some buckwheat seed where I intend to plant sweet potatoes next month.  I cleared the field of winter arugula, but my potato starts were not ready yet. Come June, the buckwheat will have grown shin-high and will be easy to hoe in to make way for my sweet potato seedlings.  You can put buckwheat in for longer, just keep trimming the heads back with some hedge shears or a weed whacker each time it flowers so it won’t reseed itself.  I’ll be seeding buckwheat all season as my earlier spring crops of lettuce and beans quit producing and it’s too hot to plant a second round of snap beans or summer squash.

mucuna_pruriens_flowers

Velvet bean. (photo courtesy of feedipedia.org)

We’ll grow velvet beans in the raised beds that need a break this summer.  Giving the soil regular rest is a sound practice in sustainable soil management.  On LSSI, we rotate our production beds, trying to give each bed or row a rest once a year. Think of cover crops as a living mulch, and velvet beans lay it on heavy. It grows a lot of organic matter, and because it is a legume, it will fix nitrogen into the soil for the next crop. Just chop it in with a hoe and let it sit and break down before sowing the next thing.  Velvet bean is an especially beneficial cover for us because it is known for deterring the detrimental soil pest, the root-knot nematode.  We haven’t grown regular tomatoes in our garden for years because this critter binds to the roots and takes soil nutrients from our plants. Look out for an update next summer, as I plant tomatoes in the beds I treated with velvet beans to see its effectiveness in managing that pest.

eggplant in rye cover 2015

Baby eggplants transplanted into a bed of winter rye

And since, we’re talking ‘maters, I want to share this great cover cropping tip for you to experiment with next spring, but in order to do it, you’ll get started late this fall by scattering rye seed. Our cherry tomato and eggplant beds will be nearly weed-free this summer because I sowed this rye last November and let it grow winter-long in order to plant my nightshades into this spring.  I simply cut the rye at soil level and turned the soil where I wanted to transplant my seedlings.  I turned it a few weeks in advance. That’s important or else they’ll compete with the rye and won’t get a good growing start.  The summer heat will kill the rye and I’ll essentially have grown my mulch in place.

As soil biologist Elaine Ingham reminds, “Nature abhors bare soil.” If you’re going to leave it bare, she’ll put something in there that you will probably call a weed.  Spread cover seed.

Another reminder for the more northerly growers in clay-rich soil: Use daikon radish, AKA nature’s plow, to break up that clay. Sow this fall and let it over-winter and rot in the ground.

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Building Beds With Wood Waste

Dug a trench down the row and filled it with wood.


Hugelkultur, roughly translated from German to mean “hill-culture,” is a soil-building method that raises the growing space by burying wood-waste beneath the soil.   We are rich in rotting wood here on LSSI, including live oaks, pines and some pecans, so we’re employing the method to areas in the garden prone to flooding— the “fields” between the orchard rows. 

After our summer harvest, we plowed the fields for one last time, as it will take years for the wood to rot and we can’t very well push a plow on top of it! Then we dug a trench down one of the rows and began to fill it with wood, mostly downed oak limbs that had fallen in the lodge areas.  (Some kinds of wood you don’t want to use include cedar and black walnut. A Google search yields lively discussions on the matter.)
Next we added, food scraps and other nitrogen sources like bloodmeal and feathermeal to speed-up the break-down of all that carbon in the form of wood-waste. Then we watered the pile before we covered it back with soil.
Added  N: food scraps, blood and feather meal.
Adding nitrogen via food scraps and meals is not necessary, however.  You can just bury the wood and the nitrogen in the soil will work to slowly break it down. But we wanted to hasten the process a little.  The idea is: the rotting wood will be a slow-releasing fertilizer over the years. Initially a lot of nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down the carbon.  But after a few years, it should have broken down substantially to begin releasing nitrogen, which will make your veggies grow.  While you’re waiting for that process to occur, best to plant crops like onions and potatoes which don’t require a lot of nitrogen.  Or legumes that actually fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere.
I first learned about this old soil-building method in a permaculturecourse a couple years back where its benefits for building fungal-rich berms around fruit trees were highlighted. I am sure the roots of the citrus and fruit trees on either side of our vegetable rows will meander to the beds and benefit immensely as well!
Check out this resource to learn more:  http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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A Story of Squash: Seed to Table

Tahitian Melon winter squash in the field.
I am happy to report our guests are dining on winter squash from the garden this fall.  But my what it took to get these enormous beauties to the table this year!
It was a long labor of love that began with the patty pan summer squash I planted in the raised beds.  I trimmed the winter rye and cut holes into them where I direct seeded the squash. These dwarf plants came up lovely, green and gorgeous, but just as they began to fruit, the pickleworms bore holes in their vines and their fruit, so there was none left for the kitchen!  The pickleworm is the larval form of a night moth which lays eggs on the leaves of cucurbits and once their eggs hatch, the young bore into the flowers of the squash, into the vines and into the fruit.  We were quick to pull those summer squash plants in an effort to get rid of the worms, but in hindsight leaving them in as a trap crop may have been a better option. Just as soon as they had no more patty pan to feed on they descended upon the cucumbers on the backfield trellis!
“Frass” from hole where a pickleworm bore into cucumber.
I left those cucs in place because right next to them were the winter squash.  Now, pickleworms, according to research, typically aren’t keen on winter squash like they are on cucs and summer squash, but just in case, I covered the backfield with row cover, which also would protect it from the dreaded squash vine borer should it have decided to make an appearance this year.
A pickleworm inching its way through the vine of a cucumber.
Row cover on the winter squash.
When the squash started blossoming, I was faced with some choices: hand pollinate and keep them covered; uncover them by day and let the bees do the job and cover them again by night (when the night moth emerges again); or uncover them and see what happens.  Well, I tried all three options but soon found the last was the most practical, and least laborious!  However, within weeks of uncovering them, I noticed some holes in the vines and some fruit shriveling up with a worm in it eating its way through the flesh. 
After more research, I decided to try a biological pesticide called Dipel. It’s a bacteria that attacks the worms.  The trouble with spraying this stuff on the squash plants is that it has to make direct contact with the skin of the worm.  Now, these guys are borers and are usually protected not only from the cover of the huge squash leaves, but also from their comfy abode hidden in the hollow of a vine and fruit!  So in order for this to work, I had to thoroughly spray at the base of every flower, around every fruit, along as many vines as I could, lifting the protective leaves as I went.  Well, I was determined! And…
Naturalist Rachael harvesting some long-in-coming squash this summer!
To the kitchen!
The chefs have been serving up winter squash off the grill, mashed up as a side dish, and in savory soups for months!


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Sheet-mulching: composting in place

Cardboard, an excellent source of carbon, placed around our winter squash mounds.

We all know the wonders of good compost in the garden, but turning piles can be laborious. And spreading it wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the beds is lot of work.  Well worth the effort, don’t get me wrong.  We have an extensive operation here on LSSI, but we also use another method to build soil. It’s called sheet-mulching, a.k.a. composting-in-place or lasagna-gardening.
If you have a manure source or a load of coffee grinds and leaves, you’re in good shape.  We need nitrogen (think: manure, coffee grinds, vegetable scraps) and carbon (leaves, paper, cardboard). Whatever sources of wastes you have you just layer them right on top of the ground you intend to grow in and let it break down in place.  A great time to do this is in the fall, so it can degrade over the winter. Come spring, you’ve got soil ready for your seeds and transplants.
Here’s the method:
  1. Soak the planting area. Water heavily. Let sit overnight.
  2. Slash vegetation, weeds, veg. residue, roots and all, and leave as “green manure.” Do remove stumps or woody vegetation, however.
  3. Amend your soil with lime, sulfur, gypsum, any raw mineral, etc. as needed.
  4. Take a spade fork or pitch fork and crack the earth open a little. Don’t turn the earth, “just poke some holes to create better moisture retention, root penetration, and soil-critter movement” as Permaculturist Toby Hemenway says.
  5. Put down a thin layer of nitrogen material: manure, cottonseed meal, fresh grass clippings, or other lush greens or veggie scraps.
  6. Spread cardboard or newspaper to smother weeds.  Cardboard is a better suppressant because it’s thicker and takes longer to break down. (Be sure to remove tape, etc. and DON’T use the produce boxes covered in wax or lots of colorful dye.) Overlap sheets and SOAK them.
  7. Add another thin layer of nitrogen-rich material.
  8. Pour on the bulk-mulch: 8-12 inches of straw, hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, saw dust, etc.
  9. Add an inch or two of finished compost if you have it. 
  10. Then another final layer of carbon.
    A word on C(carbon):N(nitrogen): As you layer, pay attention to the C:N ratio. It will ideally be at 30:1.  Get an idea of what the content of your materials are.  For instance, if you’re working with sawdust which has a very high carbon content of  500:1, you’ll want to be sure to add a lot more nitrogen, than if you’re layering with tree leaves. 
     

    from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts
    Now, sheet-mulching is not an exact science and the method is pretty forgiving, especially if you’re giving it six months to break down.  Just sure to add both the elements as you have them and you’ll be doing wonders for your soil. 

 

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Herbs Galore

If you’re going to grow anything, grow herbs. They virtually grow themselves! They attract few, if any, pests and most herbs grow back year after year. The Little St. Simon’s Island garden has been host to an array of herbs for years, but this winter we’ve taken it to another level by installing four huge raised beds right in the middle of the garden designated just for them.  What an orchestration it was getting them in!
Naturalists Mike and Laura build bed #3.
The gardener (that’s me!) filling the beds.

 
The whole team of naturalists took part, sawing lumber, nailing boards, raking dirt, and now, we have 368 square feet more growing space to supply Chef Charles with all the herbs he needs to dream up savory delectables for your palate.

Clearly, it takes a lot of growing space to supply a commercial kitchen, but not so for your home kitchen.  You can put a lot of different herbs in a small space in a beautiful display called an herb spiral. Along with the four large traditional raised beds, we built an herb spiral as the centerpiece to our garden.  You can put one by your door so all your herb needs are within reach.

Herb spirals are a permaculture garden design you can adapt to your needs. They’re especially great if you’re short on garden space because you build up rather than out.  By creating height with a wall of brick or stone, you’re also helping to create microclimates in your bed. The stone traps heat. And it creates sunny and shadier places in the space as the sun moves across the bed. The top-level, which you fill with sandy soil, is well suited to herbs that like it warm, relatively dry and super-sunny, like rosemary and oregano and thyme.  Then as you move down the spiral, you add a little more compost and plant herbs that prefer loamier soil like cilantro and basil and parsley until you get to the very bottom where herbs, like mint, need a moister cooler place to thrive. Some herb spiral designs even incorporate a pond at the bottom. 
If you’re inspired to build one yourself, follow some of these links to get started. Spirals can be as little as three feet wide or as big as eight! We watched this herb spiral tutorial on-line, perused a bunch of designs and scouted around the island dump for recyclable materials. For our spiral wall, we had a bunch of old bricks from buildings we’ve been refurbishing on the island.  We also have lots of oyster shells piling up from the evening oyster roasts each week. We used them to build height in the center of the spiral. Many designs call for gravel, but with the mountains miles away that’s not an easy find.  The gravel/shell layer not only builds height but it also helps with drainage.
Part of the beauty of the design is that your garden herb spiral will suit your needs, your own aesthetic and help you make use of whatever you have lying around to repurpose for a wall.  It’s about a day’s work for one person to put together the infrastructure. Wait about a week to let the soil settle. Then beautify it by planting your favorite herbs.  Keeping consistent with permaculture principles, the spiral is low maintenance, requiring little energy and water. You just water the top once a week.  Research says after a year when everything is established, you can just rely on the rain.

Happy planting!

Useful Links:

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Here comes the sun… and the cold

The budding green in the ground is perking up to the sun as it slowly returns to our hemisphere, but the cold of winter is surely upon us. The Polar Vortex and “Snowpocalypse” that gripped the southeast stretched its icy fingers to the coast and brought frigid temperatures to the Little St. Simon’s garden. Our aloe plants, some lemongrass and a favorite pineapple sage have all gone indoors for the season, and we’ve been tucking in our garden beds nights it dips below freezing.

Here are some tips to protect your plants from cold weather:
  1. Harvest.  Before a light frost, take tender herbs, vegetables and fruits to the kitchen. Spinach gets picked when we know the temperatures will dip below 32.  The peppers go, too. We harvested all the lemons left on the Meyers in early January when temperatures dipped into the 20’s.
  1. Cover-up.  Many tender veggies can be left in place if you put a blanket over them.  Our lettuce and chard beds stay tucked in tight with frost cloth. It’s light and water permeable, so it can be left in place for days.  Old sheets work well, too. Just be sure to take them off so your plants can see the light of day.
  1. Insulate.  Mulch your beds or rows with compost, straw or other organic matter.  Do it after the frost to prevent heaving—the contraction of soil as it freezes and thaws which can move your plants up and out of their soil beds to expose their roots. You can also insulate the trunk of vulnerable trees. Polyurethane wrapped around the graft of some of our citrus trees keeps their most vulnerable part protected.  You can also do this with soil, too; it’s called soil banking (and more on citrus protection). Mound the soil up the trunk above the graft union. Do this before the freeze, and remove the soil when temps begin to warm again to prevent disease and pest problems. 
  1. Water. A generous watering before a light frost can help retain some of the day’s heat. But don’t do this before a hard freeze—four consecutive hours of temps below 25.
  1. Plan and plant what’s hardy in your region. Consult a planting calendar for your hardiness zone. In coastal Georgia, Brassicas produce all winter. And generally, carrots, garlic, leeks, parsnips, radishes and turnips can all survive a hard freeze. 
 
Helpful links:
 

Predicting Frost: http://www.almanac.com/blog/editors-musings/blog-how-predict-frost

Citrus Protection: http://www.seminolecountyfl.gov/extensionservices/adults/horticulture/english/article480.aspx;
http://farmerfredrant.blogspot.com/2010/11/citrus-protection-in-frost-or-freeze.html

 

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Great summer, looking forward to fall!

It was quite the summer here in the Little St. Simons Island organic garden! We had an exceptionally wet season this year. For example, in just a three-week period, we had three storms with a total of 11 inches rainfall between them, and this pattern seemed to hold true for much of the summer.

Burgundy Okra (Photo: Laura Early)

As you can imagine, this is both a blessing and a curse and we’ve been busy just keeping up with the growth of both friend and foe. Thankfully, those long summer days provide plenty of time to get the work done and stay just ahead of the curve.

As our first tomatoes ripened, the crows got the first taste, but we were able to add garden fresh tomatoes to our dinner salads. Until a few weeks ago, we were still hip-deep (literally) in flowers as well; it’s been a zoo of zinnias, celosia, and dhalia, all vying for a spot in one of our lodge-side flower arrangements. We also saw success with Burgundy Okra, Malaysian Dark Red Eggplant, and a variety of peppers and basil. Speaking of which, we’ve had incredible fortune with a variety of basil known as “Mammoth”- fast growing and hearty, with a taste like Sweet basil and large, wavy leaves.

Siberian Kale (Photo: Laura Early)

The fall season has been great to us so far as well, with the comfortable drop in temperature being just the first of our blessings. We have healthy beds of autumn and winter greens started and, so far, they’re doing fantastically. Siberian Kale, in particular, has proven to be a hardy and fast-growing choice that is currently paired with “Misato Rose” radishes in one of our raised beds. This week should see the planting out of the rest of our first round of greens, including Georgia Collards, Broccoli Raab, turnips and spinach. As for harvest, we are in full swing with loads of Meyer Lemons and Satsuma tangerines already showing good color.

Finally, we got the opportunity to finish a year-long experiment in controlling our nematode population through cover cropping. We planted two beds in sweet potatoes, with one bed having been cover-cropped in rye which, in turn, had been plowed in before the planting. That bed produced 40 lbs of delicious potatoes while the other bed, our control, produced only 10 pounds! We will be employing this method on beds from here out and hope to continue to see improvements.

Other improvements we are excited to see include an expanded and extended blackberry trellis to double current size for our four new berry canes, and a more permanent structure for the 3-bin composting systems. Next time you are on the island, we invite you to the garden to have a look (smell and taste, too) at the progress!

Blackberry trellis (Photo: Laura Early)
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The Gardener’s Classroom

With winters arrival, gardeners and farmers everywhere are taking advantage of this quiet time of the year to retreat inside for the life long learning, reflection, and inspiration that comes with the humbling efforts of putting seed to soil.

Organic Herbs, Thyme

The gift of darkness brings with it time to sink deep into gardening books and resources, time to lavish in the beauty and potential with the arrival of 2013 seed catalogs, and much needed opportunities to gather the community together for learning and celebration at one of the many farming and gardening conferences happening around the county this winter.

This blog entry comes with an invitation to it’s readers to write in and share sources of knowledge and inspiration you are growing with to be added to the resource pages of this blog.

Here begins my list of reading and explorations to properly set my roots for the season ahead:

Books

The Seed Underground; A growing Revolution to Save Food by the inspirational writer and local farmer Janisse Ray.

A Georgia Food Forest by Permiculturist Cynthia Dill.  An incredible perennial crops and permiculture gardening guide for Southeast GA, and beyond.

Teaming with Microbes By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.  An excellent resource for understanding that delicate system of life beneath our feet on which all life stands.

The Soul of the Soil by Grace Gershuny and Joe Smillie.  A soil building guide for master gardeners and farmers.

Citrus Fruit for Southern and Coastal Georgia.  A UGA publication.  Winter and early spring are a great time to get new citrus trees planted for years and years of Vitamin C!

Regional Conferences to put on your calendar for 2013

The South Georgia Growing Local & Sustainable Conference
Reidsville, Georgia
January 26, 2013
http://southgeorgialocalfoodnetwork.ning.com/

Georgia Organics Annual Conference
Atlanta, GA
Feb. 22-23, 2013
http://georgiaorganics.org/conference/

Southern Sawg Annual Farming Conference
Little Rock, Arkansas
Jan. 23-26, 2013
http://www.ssawg.org/january-2013-conference/

North Carolina State University, Department of Bio & Ag Engineering, Annual Vermiculture Conference.
For all the Wormers out there sitting at the edge of their seats like I am for more knowledge on the Vermicomposting this is one to watch for next fall!  I was thrilled for the opportunity to attend the Nov. 2012 conference in Chapel Hill, NC with all the leading industry professionals, university researchers, and vermicomposters from around the world.  Professor Sherman’s website is a great resource to explore for vermicomposting technology.
http://www.bae.ncsu.edu/workshops/worm_conference/

Great Seed Catalogs

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds   www.rareseeds.com
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange    www.SouthernExposure.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds    www.Johnnyseeds.com
The Potato Garden   www.potatogarden.com

“A garden is a grand teacher.  It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” Gertrude Jekyll.
May Inspiration Bloom
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Vermicomposting on Little St. Simons Island

         It is said that Charles Darwin began and commenced his career with the study of the Earthworm:
 “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals
which have played so important a part in the history of the world
as have these lowly organized creatures”
red wiggler, eisenia fetida, organic garden
“Red Wiggler” Worm (Eisenia Fetida)
With the arrival of Fall, the vermicomposting worms on LSSI have gotten very busy turning our food waste (about 150lbs a week)
into a much needed organic fertilizer for the garden.
These Red Wigglers prefer temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s.  As a sign of cooler days ahead, we are beginning to see the presence of the band seen on the worm above. It’s called the clitellum and it is the indication that the worm has reached reproductive age .
Each mating worm will release a cocoon with 8 to 11 eggs,
The hatchlings will in turn become reproductive themselves in 60 to 90 days.  
These vermicomposting worms “process” food scraps into fertilizer in about 2 months time.   That’s about 200 pounds of castings, every 2 months, from each of the wooden bins pictured below!
And what that means for us is whole lot of worm castings for our organic garden!!
organic gardening ammendment
These worm castings —known as BLACK GOLD by farmers and gardeners— provide plant nutrients, micro nutrients, and growth compounds for healthy plant development and inoculate the soil with beneficial bacteria and fungi. 
Our vermicompost “castings” and the native soil
Increasing microbial activity in the soil benefits the garden by increasing organic matter, preserving soil moisture, and storing nutrient in the soil. This improves the plant’s resistance to disease and pests as well.
organic gardening, compost tea
We use our vermicompost castings in the garden in several ways;   added directly into the garden beds, in our seedling trays for plant propagation, by making “compost tea”.  Small quatities of castings are of exponential value when made into a liquid fertilizer and used as a foliar spray or soil drench.  This 1 lb. bag will affectively cover 1 acre of garden, yard, or farm.
Vermicomposting on LSSI has made growing an organic vegetable garden at the beach possible.
Think what it could do elsewhere!  
Vermicomposting is a simple composting method appropriate and useful for urban dwellers, farmers, schools and other institutions alike looking for a sustainable resource management tool.  
For more information on Vermicomposting refer to the book  “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof and come visit the USDA Certified Organic Garden on Little St. Simons Island.
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