The success of the Garden Tower relies on an active wormery core, which means feeding the worms frequently, especially in warmer weather.This sounds like a a doddle, but often, as with other things in life, a little constipation can occur!!
And now wow – have we got the answer. Not to the other things in life, but definitely to the wormery issue. (Then again, read on, and I’ll leave you to decide on it’s dual purpose potential!!)
The problem with the wormery core is the multitude of perforations don’t only allow worms to exit and enter like little commuters off the Tube, they also allow roots in. Hungry plants, ever seeking fresh microbial relationships to trade carbs for nutrients, are drawn through the little holes. Over a period of time and dependant also on what you are growing, this can lead to some clogging and binding of the vermi-compost in the core. Sound familiar?
Some advocate drying the tower out a bit first, once the season is over, then simply digging. This jangles with my sensibilities as a major benefit is derived in “Towericuture” planting by creating as little disturbance to your outer soil substrate as possible. Drying out is lethal to a host of beneficial micro-organisms, the very ones we are teaming up with to grow wonderful veg. Undisturbed substrate mimics natural conditions and mycorrhizal development is seriously hampered by too much digging around. Nothing makes worms want to escape faster than a Big Dig. Lets face it trying not to be eaten is fundamental response of these little critters, and to them you’d sound like a ravenous badger. Also if you have had to try and deal with this issue in this manner, it is messy and is quite invasive.
Fortunately there’s a simpler way. Drum roll…..cue the Vermi-Wand. Actually a common or garden drain rod with a 90mm (4 inch) worm screw at one end and a rotating handle at the other. The beauty about this little beauty is that it ‘worms’ it’s way down through the clogged column without too much effort. The advantage of this is that you can now start emptying bit by bit from the bottom (not forgetting to have removed your bottom slider first). And yes I am still talking about the Garden Tower. (Any other uses undertaken entirely at own risk.) With a bit of practice you’ll find that the ability to wind the Wand to different levels and gently encourage gravity a bit, works wonders. I would advocate that if this vermi-compost harvesting exercise is undertaken fairly frequently, and only a quarter to a third of the lower compost is harvested each time, and the upper stuff is gently coaxed downwards, it will just be business as usual for the worms. This will also leave space for more waste disposal and a greater throughput. More food=more worms. More worms=greater microbial activity. And happier plants. And a happier you.
The Green Garden Blog Featured Garden Tower Project this week –
“We were lucky enough to have a chat with the great people over at Garden Tower Project to find out about their amazing garden tower. We talk about everything from growing-your-own to how to reap the benefits of this sustainable, vertical garden.
Our interview with Garden Tower Project…
head on over and have a read http://greengardens.buyfencingdirect.co.uk/our-interview-with-garden-tower-project/
The microbial community in the ground is as important as the one in our guts.
A small pine tree grown in a glass box reveals the level of white, finely branched mycorrhizal threads or “mycelium” that attach to roots and feed the plant. (David Read)
We have been hearing a lot recently about a revolution in the way we think about human health — how it is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. With the release last summer of the results of the five-year National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, we are told we should think of ourselves as a “superorganism,” a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one. For the first time, thanks to our ability to conduct highly efficient and low cost genetic sequencing, we now have a map of the normal microbial make-up of a healthy human, a collection of bacteria, fungi, one-celled archaea, and viruses. Collectively they weigh about three pounds — the same as our brain.
Now that we have this map of what microorganisms are vital to our health, many believe that the future of healthcare will focus less on traditional illnesses and more on treating disorders of the human microbiome by introducing targeted microbial species (a “probiotic”) and therapeutic foods (a “prebiotic” — food for microbes) into the gut “community.” Scientists in the Human Microbiome Project set as a core outcome the development of “a twenty-first century pharmacopoeia that includes members of the human microbiota and the chemical messengers they produce.”
In short, the drugs of the future that we ingest will be full of friendly germs and the food they like to eat.
But there is another major revolution in human health also just beginning based on an understanding of tiny organisms. It is driven by the same technological advances and allows us to understand and restore our collaborative relationship with microbiota not in the human gut but in another dark place: the soil.Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed), and heavy tillage. These soil microorganisms — particularly bacteria and fungi — cycle nutrients and water to plants, to our crops, the source of our food, and ultimately our health. Soil bacteria and fungi serve as the “stomachs” of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and “digest” nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt (or taking those targeted probiotic “drugs of the future”) to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract.
The good news is that the same technological advances that allow us to map the human microbiome now enable us to understand, isolate, and reintroduce microbial species into the soil to repair the damage and restore healthy microbial communities that sustain our crops and provide nutritious food. It is now much easier for us to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.Since the 1970s, there have been soil microbes for sale in garden shops, but most products were hit-or-miss in terms of actual effectiveness, were expensive, and were largely limited to horticulture and hydroponics. Due to new genetic sequencing and production technologies, we have now come to a point where we can effectively and at low cost identify and grow key bacteria and the right species of fungi and apply them in large-scale agriculture. We can produce these “bio fertilizers” and add them to soybean, corn, vegetables, or other crop seeds to grow with and nourish the plant. We can sow the “seeds” of microorganisms with our crop seeds and, as hundreds of independent studies confirm, increase our crop yields and reduce the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers.
A mycorrhiza or fungus root in cross section. The stained-blue tissue is fungal.
These soil microorganisms do much more than nourish plants. Just as the microbes in the human body both aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms both digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. For over four hundred million years, plants have been forming a symbiotic association with fungi that colonize their roots, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), literally “fungus roots,” which extend the reach of plant roots a hundred-fold. These fungal filaments not only channel nutrients and water back to the plant cells, they connect plants and actually enable them to communicate with one another and set up defense systems. A recent experiment in the U.K. showed that mycorrhizal filaments act as a conduit for signaling between plants, strengthening their natural defenses against pests. When attacked by aphids, a broad bean plant transmitted a signal through the mycorrhizal filaments to other bean plants nearby, acting as an early warning system, enabling those plants to begin to produce their defensive chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps, a natural aphid predator. Another study showed that diseased tomato plants also use the underground network of mycorrhizal filaments to warn healthy tomato plants, which then activate their defenses before being attacked themselves.
Thus the microbial community in the soil, like in the human biome, provides “invasion resistance” services to its symbiotic partner. We disturb this association at our peril. As Michael Pollan recently noted, “Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their ‘old friends’ — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.”
Not only do soil microorganisms nourish and protect plants, they play a crucial role in providing many “ecosystem services” that are absolutely critical to human survival. By many calculations, the living soil is the Earth’s most valuable ecosystem, providing ecological services such as climate regulation, mitigation of drought and floods, soil erosion prevention, and water filtration, worth trillions of dollars each year. Those who study the human microbiome have now begun to borrow the term “ecosystem services” to describe critical functions played by microorganisms in human health.
With regard to stabilizing our increasingly unruly climate, soil microorganisms have been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years through the mycorrizal filaments, which are coated in a sticky protein called “glomalin.” Microbiologists are now working to gain a fuller understanding of its chemical nature and mapping its gene sequence. As much as 30 to 40 percent of the glomalin molecule is carbon. Glomalin may account for as much as one-third of the world’s soil carbon — and the soil contains more carbon than all plants and the atmosphere combined.We are now at a point where microbes that thrive in healthy soil have been largely rendered inactive or eliminated in most commercial agricultural lands; they are unable to do what they have done for hundreds of millions of years, to access, conserve, and cycle nutrients and water for plants and regulate the climate. Half of the earth’s habitable lands are farmed and we are losing soil and organic matter at an alarming rate. Studies show steady global soil depletion over time, and a serious stagnation in crop yields.So, not only have we hindered natural processes that nourish crops and sequester carbon in cultivated land, but modern agriculture has become one of the biggest causes of climate instability. Our current global food system, from clearing forests to growing food, to fertilizer manufacturing, to food storage and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. This is more than all the cars and trucks in the transportation sector, which accounts for about one-fifth of all green house gases globally.
The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is thus arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food. Overall soil ecology still holds many mysteries. What Leonardo Da Vinci said five hundred years ago is probably still true today: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Though you never see them, ninety percent of all organisms on the seven continents live underground. In addition to bacteria and fungi, the soil is also filled with protozoa, nematodes, mites, and microarthropods. There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin.
An electron micrograph of a mycorrhiza with radiating mycorrhizal fungal filaments
We hear about many endangered animals in the Amazon and now all around the world. We all know about the chainsaw-wielding workers cutting trees in the rainforest. But we hear relatively little about the destruction of the habitat of kingdoms of life beyond plant and animal — that of bacteria and fungi. Some microbiologists are now warning us that we must stop the destruction of the human microbiome, and that important species of microorganisms may have already gone extinct, some which might possibly play a key role in our health.We are making good progress in mapping the soil microbiome, hopefully in time to identify those species vital to soil and plant health, so they can be reintroduced as necessary. There is now an Earth Microbiome Project dedicated to analyzing and mapping microbial communities in soils and waters across the globe. We do not want to find ourselves in the position we have been with regard to many animal species that have gone extinct. We have already decimated or eliminated known vital soil microorganisms in certain soils and now need to reintroduce them. But it is very different from an effort, let us say, to reintroduce the once massive herds of buffalo to the American plains. We need these tiny partners to help build a sustainable agricultural system, to stabilize our climate in an era of increasing drought and severe weather, and to maintain our very health and well-being.
The mass destruction of soil microorganisms began with technological advances in the early twentieth century. The number of tractors in the U.S. went from zero to three million by 1950. Farmers increased the size of their fields and made cropping more specialized. Advances in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers made them abundant and affordable. Ammonium nitrate produced in WWII for munitions was then used for agriculture (we recently saw the explosive power contained in one such fertilizer factory in the town of West Texas). The “Green Revolution” was driven by a fear of how to feed massive population growth. It did produce more food, but it was at the cost of the long-term health of the soil. And many would argue that the food it did produce was progressively less nutritious as the soil became depleted of organic matter, minerals, and microorganisms. Arden Andersen, a soil scientist and agricultural consultant turned physician, has long argued that human health is directly correlated to soil health.During this same period, we saw the rise of the “biological agriculture” movement, largely in reaction to these technological developments and the mechanization of agriculture. In the first part of the twentieth century, the British botanist Sir Albert Howard and his wife Gabrielle documented traditional Indian farming practices, the beginning of the biological farming movement in the West. Austrian writer, educator, and activist Rudolf Steiner advanced a concept of “biodynamic” agriculture. In 1930, the Soil Society was established in London. Shortly thereafter, Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese microbiologist working in soil science and plant pathology, developed a radical no-till organic method for growing grain and other crops that has been practiced effectively on a small scale.Fortunately, there is now a strong business case for the reintroduction of soil microorganisms in both small farms and large-scale agribusiness. Scientific advances have now allowed us to take soil organisms from an eco-farming niche to mainstream agribusiness. We can replenish the soil and save billions of dollars. Many field tests, including a recent one at the University of North Dakota, show that application of a commercial mycorrhizal fungi product to the soybean root or seeds increased soybean yields from 5 to 15 percent. The U.S. market for soybeans is currently worth about $43 billion annually, so adding healthy microbes to the crop will save billions (the value of increased yields is three to five times greater than the cost of application at current prices). Studies show that there will also be major savings from reduced need for chemical fertilizers and irrigation due to more efficient up-take of minerals and water. This also means fewer toxins and pollutants, particularly nitrogen fertilizers, leaching from agricultural lands into our public water system and rivers, which has contributed to massive “dead zones” like that in the Mississippi Delta.For all these reasons, bio fertility products are now a $500 million industry and growing fast. The major agricultural chemical companies, like Bayer, BASF, Novozymes, Pioneer, and Syngenta are now actively selling, acquiring or developing these products.Reintroducing microorganisms into the soil, together with the organic matter they feed upon, has the potential to be a key part of the next big revolution in human health — the development of sustainable agriculture and food security based on restored soil health. Just as in the case of the human microbiome, the soil drugs of the future are ones full of friendly germs, and the foods they like to eat.
Here in the UK we recommend the use of Carbon Gold Multipurpose Compost with Biochar, as the potting media of choice.
This mix is peat -free and is proving ideal working in combination with the active vertical wormery core.
The coir base of the compost is high in lignin which provides excellent structure in a vertical system and won’t degrade too quickly. This is important to prevent compaction and also settling out of finer particles, which would accumulate at the lower level and reduce free-drainage. Coir also provides a great environment for worms, and will last a number of years in a regenerative system like the Garden Tower. The biochar inclusion however is where some real magic happens as biochar has some amazing properties:
- The micro-porous structure provides a excellent habitat for the proliferation of beneficial soil biota.
- The micro-porous structure of biochar benefits water retention in the soil.
- The surface area of biochar has been demonstrated to be anywhere from 10 to 300 m2 /g (activated charcoal has a surface area of up to 2,000 m2 /g!), most of which is found internally and provides ample area for microbial habitat.
- The large surface area of biochar can attract and hold all mineral ions – not only cations (+) such as ammonium, calcium, magnesium and potassium, but also anions (-) such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and boron. By attracting and holding both positive and negative nutrient ions in the soil, biochar can reduce both leaching (into groundwater) and out-gassing (into the atmosphere). These loosely-held nutrients are bio-available to microbes and plant roots in the complex root zone.
- Biochar can improve soil texture and workability, particularly heavy clay soils, although it has shown great promise in all soil types.
- Recent studies have shown that plants grown in biochar as a growth medium (at concentrations as low as 1 to 5% of the total soil mixture) tend to have a higher resistance to pests and diseases (i.e., systemic resistance) (Elad et al., 2010).
- Biochar’s natural affinity for nitrogen allows it to arrest the flow of the nitrogen cycle. It tends to only release as much nitrogen into the surrounding soil as is needed by microbes and plants to maintain healthy growth (ScienceDaily, 2010)
adapted from (Biochar – An Organic House for Soil Microbes by Bryan Hugill 2011)
It may be stretching horticultural possibilities to grow your potatoes in Martian soil with added biology compliments of your own bowel evacuations. However the fact that a botanist and his larger-than-life accomplishments were the focus of an Oscar-winning feature film must somehow indicate that the technology here is starting to chime a popular chord. Are botany and biology finally getting up there with quantum mechanics and video-game graphics as fashionable subjects? They should do, because quite frankly the future of civilisation, as we will come to know it, will ultimately come to depend upon just how much enthusiasm the human race shows for these topics. Enthusing a generation to explore the biology of the soil will hopefully follow the uptake of space and marine science as trendy subjects. Hard to think that we probably know less about what’s going on in a clod of mud stuck to a shoe, than we do about the ocean floor or the surface of the moon.
Today I had my own little Matt Damon moment as I hooked up my solar irrigation to the Garden Tower and the planetary winds howled outside my little experimental tented greenhouse. (Some days we seem to share the same wind profile here on the south coast as the tip of Everest).
The early 2016 English Spring is not the most forgiving climate if your ambitions centre on growing tomatoes. Harsh but better than Mars. The process of working alongside natural forces using other natural forces modified by human ingenuity to grow food is quite engaging, and strangely satisfying considering the quantity of resources targeted at a few plants! Still cheaper than producing the same result on Mars however, but the natural technology is not far from the same level when all considered, although at least my gravity was earthly and stable.
My fascination with the Garden Tower centres around it’s use of the soil-food-web as the central method for producing a happy
environment for plants. My background in agriculture has taught me that if you want to manipulate nature to produce stuff for everyone’s benefit, the first rule is to check for happiness. Unhappy livestock does not thrive, nor do unhappy plants. Just like most organisms on planet earth including husbands, wives, pigs, chickens, pot-plants, insects or bacteria, a harsh environment produces unhappy organisms and poor results. The core idea, literally, in the Garden Tower is the promotion of a happy soil-food-web. Keeping that balance in the Tower is remarkably easy, simply because the natural chain of events is incredibly resilient. The complexity of interrelationships between the millions of micro-organisms is largely governed by the activity of the earthworms, and keeping them happy is not complicated.
When supplying fertility unnaturally – by chemical means for example – adding the right amount is very hit and miss, mostly miss. The excess becomes a pollutant which is out of sight and out of mind until it ends up causing an algal bloom in the local river. With a biological system the plants themselves develop symbiotic relationships with the microbes that supply their nutrients and regulate the type and quantities of nutrient they need. Excesses become self regulating or are exported from the system in more planet friendly form, or simply eaten.
A healthy system with happy microbes and happy plants. How all this works in fine detail is as yet a mostly unexplored science. Maybe it needs a bit more feature film exposure.
Garden Tower Project will have a stand at the following shows so come along see the amazing Garden Tower first hand on the stand!
22/23/24 April 2016 – The Garden Show – Firle Place Sussex BN8 6LP
5/6/7/8 May – Malvern Spring Festival – Three Counties Showground, Worcestershire, WR13 6NW
3/4/5 June – Gardening Scotland – Edinburgh EH28 8NB
16/17/18/19 June – BBC Gardeners World Live – NEC Birmingham B40 1NT.
15/16/17 July – The Stratford-upon-Avon Home & Garden Show – Recreation Ground next to the River Avon CV37 7LS.
Organic methods are undeniably the future, and here at Natures Toolbox we think we have a little part of the answer to engagement with this:
Environmentally our planet faces challenges, and we know this concerns everybody, but particularly the younger generation since it it they who are going to to be in the forefront of fixing the problem. Everyone needs to make a small contribution and now it is possible to do so through your approach to gardening. Following organic principles is what we need to be doing in order to reduce chemical pesticide use and overuse of chemical fertilisers which destroy soil life and leach into our rivers, with domino effects on the oceans and global ecology. Whilst it may be large-scale agriculture that is at fault, teaching the principles to children through early adoption of the correct principles in gardening will influence our future generation of farmers to be doing the right thing.
The Garden Tower Project has developed a vertical gardening system that uses recycled veggie scraps to produce organic food crops. This works by utilising composting earthworms to in a central wormery to actively move their resulting vermi-compost out into the adjacent rootzone. The 45 vertical apertures in the rotating body provide accessible planting positions for a variety of edible crops. The fertility-transfer system works extremely well and produces nutrient-dense healthy plants which are consequently more disease resistant as a result. This means healthier food and without pesticides and and it’s own provenance – your patio/greenhouse/conservatory!
The system also recycles its fluids resulting in reduced water usage and the vermi-compost core can easily be emptied when full producing black-gold vermi-compost for use elsewhere. We are developing a solar-powered watering system which also takes care of that aspect to prevent over- or under-watering so all you need to do is plant and harvest!
As a space saving device the Garden Tower is virtually a mini allotment and ideal for balconies or urban small space gardening. We believe that the organic principles demonstrated so beautifully in the Tower’s contained ecosystem are the same principles that will eventually provide food to future Mars explorers!