Steward – March 2021

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)


Composting with biochar

Seed Starting

Bale Raised Beds: My experiment and project for this year’s growing season – Part 2

Planning for Planting (moved to Nourish)

Getting Started with Vermiculture, AKA Worm Composting

Spring Clean-Up in the Garden



Composting with biochar

Featuring presentations by Tim Overdier and Nate Walton.

MGANM January Meeting Notes by Erin Paxson -Extension Master Gardener Trainee

BiocharBiochar is the latest buzzword in the gardening world. What exactly is biochar?  What benefits does it have in the garden and how do you utilize it?  Tim Overdier is based in Northport, and after years of research as a soil scientist in 10 different states and twice as many Indian reservations, he has collaborated with grazier Paul May to sell to and educate the public on biochar use. Their company, The Biochar Guys ( create biochar using old home heating tanks made into 10ft trough kilns.

Although many of us are just now becoming familiar with biochar, Tim tells us it was utilized 8,000 years ago in the Amazon by indigenous people to enhance soil fertility.  Biochar has the ability to absorb water, minerals, nutrients, even fertilizer nitrates, heavy metals, and chemicals that can contaminate the groundwater. Biochar’s high surface area and honeycomb-like structure can provide a home for soil microbes. It is negatively charged, absorbing nutrients with positively charged cations thus contributing to higher cation exchange capacity (CEC). Another benefit of biochar is that it stabilizes 50-65% of carbon in organic matter, slowing down the normal decomposition cycle.  

Tim believes Michigan is an ideal place to experiment with biochar.  Our sandy Kalkaska soil has a low cation and water holding capacity.  Using biochar can provide a solution.  It is possible to make your own biochar but not all material can be burned. It best to stick with branches 0-3” in diameter left over from pruning or old wood mill waste. The process of pyrolysis is also key to making quality biochar.  Tim recommends applying 2 cubic ft of biochar mixed with compost into a 100 sq ft garden.  Adding compost to the biochar helps prevent it from initially absorbing too many nutrients in the soil. Amazingly, biochar does not need to be reapplied each year, it does not break down and will last hundreds of years in the soil!  The char has a pH of 8 so its best to add it in increments and monitor the pH. Adding too much can have a liming effect.

Dr. Nate Walton rounded out the presentation by discussing the finer points of using biochar in compost for the garden. He reiterated the fact that the ideal soil is comprised of 5% organic matter.  This includes humus (decomposed organic matter) and living organisms. Building healthy, active soil can be done with mulch, cover crops and compost.  During the composting process, as organic matter decomposes, methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia are released.   The optimal ratios for compost are 2:1 or 3:1 by volume (carbon: nitrogen). The carbon or brown material you would add to create compost might include leaves, straw, twigs, shredded paper.  The nitrogen or green material could come from grass clippings, food waste, weeds, and coffee grounds.  For example, add 2 buckets of shredded paper and 1 bucket of lawn clippings. When composting, 1) layer material up to 4 ft in height. 2) Add water so the compost feels similar to a damp sponge. 3) Add a shovelful of moist soil. 4)Mix well.    If you choose to create hot compost (aerobic) the moisture level and temperature will need to be monitored and it should be turned.  This is the best type of compost to mix with biochar.  When adding char to compost, consider the source of the biochar.  Add 5-15% by weight at the beginning of the composting process.

 As of today, biochar lacks the research and funding to be a widely used product.  Hopefully, this will change.  The benefits of biochar appear to be well worth the effort. More info can be found here:



Seed Starting

Presentation by Sue Newman- AMG

MGANM February Meeting Notes by Erin Paxson -Extension Master Gardener Trainee

Seed SavingThese rare sunny days have us gardeners ready to get our hands in the soil!  Advanced Master Gardener Sue Newman shared with us some valuable tips for successfully starting seeds indoors, allowing for a head start on the short growing season.  It begins with browsing the seed catalogs. Look for the helpful key in the first few pages to quickly learn the light requirements, disease resistance and many other factors that will allow you to choose the seeds that are right for your garden.  Long day seeds grow well in northern climates. Sue recommends AAS- All America Selections as a great resource for finding new highly rated seeds based on flavor and growth and tailored to specific regions.  She turns to Mother Earth News and Fine Gardening magazines for articles on current trends. 

When determining when it is safe to being planting, Sue combines the last frost dates found at with information found on the back of individual seed packets.  Here you will also find days to germination and whether the seed should be direct sown or started indoors.  Finding the right growing medium can be as simple as purchasing a packaged seed starting mix or mixing you own using coconut coir or a combination of vermiculite, perlite and sphagnum moss. Using topsoil is NOT recommended! The medium must be sterile to avoid damping off disease and other fungal issues.  When considering containers for seed starting, smaller seeds should begin in 2-3” cells.  Some larger seeds may be moved to a bigger pot before planting (cucurbits) and in this case starting off with a 4” pot will do. With so many options one thing is for certain, containers MUST have holes in the bottom for proper drainage. Sue commented on the use of soil blocks noting the roots of plants have a chance to grow together. Peat pellets may dry out faster and have restrictive netting.  Peat pots don’t always break down and can rob moisture from the plant.  Seed starting systems are worth considering although if it is made of Styrofoam it cannot be used with heating mats and will float in water.  The Burpee self-watering seed starter system has been a go to product for Sue.

A short video of Sue’s workspace in her garage featured a long work bench, totes for soil storage, a sink with filtered /heated water and grow towers with attached lighting.  Full spectrum bulbs make a difference in growth rate and the ability to raise the lighting component is helpful. Lighting should consistently be 1-2” above the seedlings as they grow. Timers can assist in maintaining 14 hours of light.  The type of water used is just as important as lighting. Chlorinated water should sit in a container for 24 hours for the chlorine to dissipate. Soft water can be filtered. Tepid temperature is preferable and when watering those fragile seedlings, start from the bottom or mist. Warmer soil temperature will speed up germination. If your growing space is below 65 degrees, adding heat mats will increase the soil temperature. Fertilizing is not recommended until the first two true leaves appear.  Fish emulsion can be used, but Sue prefers not to use pre-mixed fertilizers. 

When seedlings are large enough to handle without causing damage, its time to transplant! Sue prefers transplanting into square 4” pots to save space under the lights.  Burying the stem of tomato plants will prevent legginess.  When using a plastic dome/lid, seeds with similar germination rates should be planted together.  This way, you won’t be stuck with some seedlings pushing at the lid while others are barely popping above the soil.  Please remember to label the seeds as you plant and transplant them otherwise you may run into a case of mistaken identity.  Store remaining seeds in the original packets in a dry, dark area. Once the seedlings are ready to venture outdoors, the hardening off process begins.  Begin by placing the plants in a shady spot protected from harsh winds.  At first, they will sit outside for just a few hours. Each day increase the amount of time they are outdoors, finishing with some time spent in direct sunlight.  The whole process should take 7-10 days. Once acclimated, the plants can begin their lives in the garden!

The presentation ended with Sue sharing some of her improvement goals; sharing seeds with buddies, creating a planting plan, planning for succession planting and remembering to document everything. Recommended resources ranged from Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed-Starters Handbook to various seed catalogs and garden supply websites (Lee Valley and Gardeners Supply).   As usual, Sue’s presentation was packed with useful information and entertaining visuals. Stock up on seeds and soil. The time to start seeds will be here before you know it.

Seed Starting Recording
Seed Starting Presentation





Bale Raised Beds: My experiment and project for this year’s growing season – Part 2

Article and photos by Michael O’Brien, Advanced Master Gardener

In my first article (Part 1 of Bale Raised Beds-The Real Dirt, July 2020), I discussed creating bale raised beds.  In this second part, I will discuss some of my successes and my disappointments or better put as my frustrations.  I got my plants planted around June 19th, which is a little later than usual.  Building the bed and filling it was delayed due to the coronavirus and the state mandates at the time. Within a few days after the plants were planted, the temperatures went into the nineties with clear skies and no rain in sight for two weeks.  My plants were already stressed due to the delay in planting them.  All my plants could do was transpire just to stay alive.  I found drip lines that weren‘t watering plants enough so some plants died. For two weeks, my plants hadn’t grown.  It was now the beginning of July, I was so far behind in the growing season.  I was ready to give up.  Deep in my heart, I knew I couldn’t do that.  I had the training to see and know what was needed to fix this problem.  Besides, if I gave up I wouldn’t be able to write the second part of this article.

It was time to get to work, fix the problems and give the plants what they needed.  I replaced the drip lines with spray emitters.  I also increased the amount of time the garden was getting watered, twice a day a half an hour each time.  I also noticed the soil I used didn’t have enough nutrients to support the plants.  Yes, soil testing would have helped though I was behind schedule.  After a few days of good healthy watering I then added a slow release fertilizer.  The fertilizer would be enough to get the plants through the growing season.

Bale Garden


This picture was taken on June 23, 2020.

By the third week in July, I really started to see the plants were really growing.  I knew my harvest was going to be late due to the late start and high temperatures.  I was just happy to see the raised bed was working ,and the plants were happy.


By the end of August, I was beginning to harvest some tomatoes and the squash plants were doing well.  I was amazed to see how much my plants had grown.  Using the center support for the plants was just what the plants wanted and needed.

Bale garden grown



This picture was taken on August 30, 2020.





SquashThis Photo is Red Kuri Squash, a cultivated variety of the species Cucurbita maxima.

To summarize my experience working with a bale raised bed, I loved it!  The soil was so soft making it really easy planting plants.  At the end of the season, seeds that were in the bales did sprout.  The bales raised the height of the grow bed which made it easier to work with.  The plants were more protected during early morning frost especially if a tarp covered the plants.  The tarp kept the heat around plants which allowed my plants to continue to ripen vegetables.  This year I plan to surround the remaining bales with cinder blocks.  I will also do some experimenting with the cold frame that is attached to the side of the bed.  This is really a great design though your’s doesn’t have to be as big as mine.




Getting Started with Vermiculture, AKA Worm Composting

By Jane Denay, Extension Master Gardener Trainee

My journey with vermiculture began seven years ago when a friend donated her working tray worm compost system to me. It wasn’t that she failed, however she had purchased the two tray systems and she wasn’t able to provide enough food scraps for her worms. I had been a long-term composter with varying degrees of success. I have done heap composting but found it hard to have the proper blend of ingredients to get a hot pile.  I’ve used layered, lasagna method composting in starting new beds. I have also used a compost tumbler. The vermiculture system has taught me to be a better composter, with all my methods I have the right balance of carbon to nitrogen, moisture, and aeration. With the help of my worms, I have turned our limestone lot into a virtual Eden.  

Vermicomposting is similar to traditional composting. Both use natural processes to break down organic matter. Traditional composting relies on fungi and microorganisms to breakdown the organic matter; therefore, it is sometimes called microbial composting. In vermiculture worms do most of the composting. Both microbial and worm composting are aerobic processes since they require oxygen to function. 




Vermiculture, worm composting tray system, located in our utility room.




Setting up your vermiculture:

  • Worm Bin: I use a worm bin with four stacking trays. This allows for an ongoing addition of food in the upper tray while allowing composting to proceed in the lower trays. There are also homemade systems using plastic totes, buckets, even old coolers. All bins need a source of oxygen and to be covered to conserve moisture and provide darkness for the worms. 
  • Location: Locate your worm composter in a space that is warm, dry and well ventilated. The temperature should stay between 55-80 degrees year round.
  • Worms: You’ll want to get Eisenia fetida, which are commonly known as red wigglers; for your bin. They thrive on organic matter at the surface. These can be ordered on line or procured from a friend. Do not use earthworms as they live deep in the soil and don’t tolerate the confinement of a bin.
  • Preparation and maintenance: In preparing and maintaining a bed for your worms, keep the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 50:1. Worms thrive at this ration. At lower ratios, the environment becomes acidic and microorganisms will out compete the worms.
    • Carbon bedding: To begin, start with 3 inches of moistened bedding materials. You can use shredded newspaper or cardboard, shredded fall leaves, chopped-up straw, sawdust, paper towels and napkins. No glossy colored paper or plastic window in envelopes. Vary the bedding in the bin to provide more nutrients for the worms and to create richer compost. Add two handfuls of sand or soil to provide the necessary grit for the worm’s digestion of food and to provide microscopic organisms necessary for decomposition. Pulverized egg shells may also be used for grit.
    • Nitrogen is provided by food scraps: Fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, and teabags. Chop scraps into small pieces to speed worm digestion. Do not use citrus, onion or salty items which worms avoid. Also avoid animal products, oily foods scraps and grains.




Keep a separate compost container for foods like citrus that worms will not eat.



  • Add food after the last feeding is mostly eaten. When using the tray system, spread a thin layer of food waste 1 ¼ inches deep, then cover with two inches of fresh bedding. New bedding is needed to keep the C:N balance. Overfeeding can lead to a C:N imbalance. Put surplus food scraps in a traditional compost bin.
  • Getting the C:N balance correct is more an art than a science. The tendency is to provide too much nitrogen. Clues to too much nitrogen are found under the troubleshooting section.





Food scraps provide nitrogen.Vermiculture



Strips of newspaper provide necessary carbon.


  • Moisture
    • Water is necessary for worm survival. The optimum moisture content is 70 percent to 85 percent with the bin’s content being like a wrung out sponge. Dampen new bedding as you apply it.
  • Harvesting:
    • Using the tray compost system move the bottom tray of finished compost to the top and leave the lid off for 24 hours. Red wigglers don’t like light and most will migrate to the lower bin.
    • Treat vermicompost like manure and mix in an 8:1 ratio with garden soil.
    • In the winter finished compost can be kept in a 5 gallon bucket for spring use.




Red wigglers worms on top of the finished compost ready for fresh food scraps.



 Finished compost tray brought to the top.
When exposed to light red wigglers will migrate to lower bin.



  • Troubleshooting
    • Odor: This is your first hint your C:N balance is off. Stop feeding for two weeks and cover with 3 inches of bedding. Do not over feed.
    • Escaping worms: Red wigglers can survive in saturated bins for short periods, but will escape the bin when oxygen starts to run out. Taking the lid off helps dry it out, and the light will drive the worms back into the compost.
    • Flies: Flies can be problematic if you overfeed or leave food scraps exposed.
  • Leachate
    • Leachate is the brown, excess liquid byproduct of vermiculture. All vermiculture systems have a means of draining it off. As this liquid is not oxygenated, microorganisms in it are growing under anaerobic conditions. This can lead to harmful bacteria and thus it should not be used in vegetable gardens. Flush it down the toilet or dilute and use on nonedible plants.
    • If your system has the proper C:N ratio, you should have minimal leachate forming.
    • Leachate is not the same as compost tea which is made with compost and water under aerobic conditions using an aerator.


.MSU Extension Master Gardener Training Manual “Backyard Composting” pp15-19




Spring Clean-Up in the Garden

By Cheryl Gross, Advanced Extension Master Gardening

Garden CleanupAs this is being written, northwest lower Michigan is covered in snow.  We are anticipating deep chill and daily snowfalls.  Spring seems A-LONG-WAY-OFF, and yet, before we know it, green will begin to emerge.  After our long winter season, gardeners are simply itching to get into the soil!  The desire and longing are real.  This article is about curbing your enthusiasm.  I know, I feel your pain, and I am sorry.

In the fall, there were articles and Facebook posts and a wealth of information shared about “leaving the leaves”.  The writers emphasized the ecosystem created by leaf litter.  There are many critters who depend on leaf litter for their very survival.  Some overwinter as eggs, others as pupa, and some as adults.  By destroying the ecosystem during fall clean-up, the very survival of these populations is doomed.  The advice then was to take it easy, leave the leaves, and take a fall hike instead.  So, now as we emerge from the cold and dark winter months, WHEN can we disturb the leaves we so lovingly left for the good of nature?

The easiest way is to watch the thermometer.  When the daytime temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or above, MOST of the critters will have emerged.  In early May when hiking at Pete’s Woods and the temperature reaches 50 degrees, bees will begin to emerge to feed on the nectar of our early spring ephemerals and Mourning Cloak butterflies, who overwintered as adults, will emerge to begin feeding.  Not picky eaters, when there are few flowers, I have seen them nourishing themselves on scat.  These early insects return to safety when the temperatures drop.

So, what does that mean in our home landscape?  Wait until temps are consistently 50 degrees or more.  It is not easy.  Many neighbors will be out well before that key marker raking leaves, fertilizing, spreading fresh mulch, and generally disrupting the micro ecosystem living in the beds and stems that were left intact over the winter.  If you were willing to wait it out in the fall, do not jump-the-gun in spring.

Besides protecting our critters in spring and letting them emerge when ready, holding back in spring is important in other ways. 

  • Soil should not be worked when wet.  Allow all of your beds to warm and dry before digging.  Worked wet, soil becomes compacted and clumped.
  • Most seeds are happiest with warmer soil temperatures which is why delicate vegetable seedlings go out after the last date for a frost. (Some, like peas, appreciate cooler temperatures.)
  • Plants that emerge under leaf litter will not be stunted; they just might look a little sickly at first, but will harden and green-up quickly.  Remember, delicate Dutchmen’s Breeches need no help clearing leaf litter to emerge from the forest floor.  Additionally, fern and mushrooms can break through blacktop to grow.  Plants are tough. Spring bulbs are strong enough to blossom through leaf litter so do not fear.
  • The last plant to emerge in my gardens is Wild Petunia.  I have learned to use that as my clean-up signal. In some seasons when too eager, it is easy to damage the plants or roots of plants if their exact location is not clear.
  • Birds may use garden materials to build nests.  In my yard, Cedar Waxwings collect strips of plant material from the dead Swamp Milkweed stems left over the winter.  What might they use if my gardens were neat, tidy, and cleaned in the fall or cut back in early spring?
  • Finally, the hollow stems left for bee nurseries need to remain standing until the next generation emerges. 

What is a gardener to do when the air smells of soil and leaf mold and the sun is out and warm?  Take a walk, read a book, observe your gardens.  Watch for insect life and check for winter damage.  Do anything you can to anticipate the gardening season, and WAIT for the magic of consistently 50-degree days to garden.





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