I Need More Carbon

A friend recently commented, “You talk about fecal material a lot.”  I do.  I appreciate manure and what it can do for my soil, the soil life and the world around me.  While most people just use it to pollute drinking water, I make it work.  In order to make it work I need carbon.  Lots of carbon.

The primary use is just to keep the animals warm and dry.  Carbon also helps to sponge up nutrients, preventing odors from escaping and holding nutrients in suspension for later use.  It soaks up liquids, helping to protect the underground water supply.  It adds structure to the soil.  It acts as a weed barrier.  I could go on.

We buy carbon in several forms.

Straw bales are the first thing people think of when they think of barns.  Why straw?  It’s a local resource and is available in quantity.  It’s a by-product of raising small grains.  It is a useful tool for bedding but has its limitations.  It mats quickly, it is not very absorbant and it takes up a lot of space.  On the plus side, it adds air space to compost and rots quickly.

What is better than straw?  Wood chips.

I cut a lot of brush and run most of it through my chipper…the smaller stuff anyway.  That, and chips dropped off by the power company, help me to accumulate large windrows of wood chips.

Wood chips are large and bulky.  They do a good job stabilizing a muddy area but are unpleasant to walk on or scratch in…if you are a chicken.  They are also of limited use absorbing nutrients as there is so little surface area per unit of volume.  But they do make nice paths through the garden.

But what’s better is hardwood sawdust.  Sawdust offers greater surface area per unit of volume and is comfortable to walk on.  Cows prefer to lay on sawdust over straw.  We use it to mulch our garden beds, to bed our chickens, cows in the winter and to catch rabbit manure.

Sawdust quickly soaks up water, urine and manure, it’s easy for the chicks to scratch into, it is easy to move around with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, it is cheap and can be found locally.  We use sawdust straight from the sawmill rather than from a wood shop.  The kiln dried stuff acts and feels different.  Also, we let a pile sit out in the weather for at least a few months before we really tie into it.

Where I am, these are the three easiest forms of carbon to get my hands on.  Each are useful as bedding, build great compost and help maintain soil health.  If given the choice, I would choose a truckload of wood chips over a truckload of fresh horse manure.  It has so many more uses.

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Planting Blueberries

For years we have purchased blueberries from some friends, Mark and Kelly Smith.  This year we thought we should put in a row of our own and see how it goes.  With luck and in time we may be blueberry independent.  We had 2 inches of rain the night before so working on mulch was going to be the only work I could accomplish in the morning.

Now, I know blueberries in central Illinois may not qualify as sustainable as our soil is anything but acidic.  They are something of a guilty pleasure.  I’ll have to work to keep the acidity up.  But we like them, they will provide a little color in the fall, and a windbreak for our garden.  Also, the line we are planting is at the very edge of the parking lot/driveway and will give us a clear border.

I began by laying out some lines that were square with the buildings.  Please note the recycled bailer twine.  I also had a 6″ deep line of aged wood chips and sawdust in place for the last week or so in preparation for planting.

Then I began digging.  I knew my grandpa collected rocks but I had no idea.  I plan to put up a post in the near future about making sure your short-term goals (preventing your tractor from getting stuck) won’t be in the way of future generations…considering the consequences of your vision.


The goal is to dig a hole 1 foot deep and 2.5 feet in diameter.  I stopped mining rock before I got to my goal on the last hole..

Because I took so much rock out I had very little soil to put back into the hole.  I put in a mix of several things to give my plants a good start.  First I put in a few shovels full of unsifted compost.

Then I added in about half a bag of peat to bring up the acidity.  Now, if given the choice between peat and coco coir I would choose the coco coir but this is a special situation.  I bought a greenhouse from a nursery that was going out of business.  He also had a pallet of peat.  Rather than send the peat to the landfill I brought it home.  This isn’t a choice I make every day but I think, in this scenario, you understand.

Next I add a few shovels of rabbit manure mixed with sawdust.  I realize not everybody has rabbit manure but you have to understand, I don’t have soil in this hole.  I’m using the rabbit manure to replace the missing soil mass.  Bear with me here.  I’m not presenting an ultimate solution, I’m just trying to make lemonade.

Then I mix the components and add some water.

Now I replace my string, measure my space between plants (with a 4′ tool handle) and place my plant in the hole.

I’m still short on soil so I continue surrounding the plant with rabbit manure and top it all off with a bit of horse manure.  Yeah, I know…not everybody has horse manure laying around either.  I’m trying to bring up the acidity after mining out a bushel basket of limestone.

Finally, I cover the row with a fresh 4″ of composted sawdust.  As that sawdust breaks down it will provide a weed barrier and raise the acidity of my soil.  Also it will sponge up moisture and provide soil structure as blueberries want to be moist, not wet.

I have done a lot of work over a couple of hours to plant a measly six plants.  As they grow they’ll tell me what they need.  I may have to make some changes or at least a few tweaks before they really take off.  I don’t know.  It is the unknown unknowns (Thanks Talib) that make gardening exciting.

Special thanks to our friends Nathan and Aimee for lending a hand with the mulch.   They thought they were just coming for lunch