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Squash in woodchips

 
pollinator
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Everyone on here probably is aware I have a woodchip fixation. I am fortunate to get hundreds of yards of mixed chips and leaves. I know others may have a limited supply, so hopefully some of my experiments will help target the use of them.

This is about winter squash, which I consider my best producing staple. Easy to harvest, store and nutritious. Potatoes/sweet potato in another thread when I get around to it.

Three main areas: one is chips from last year, in a huge mound, with buried deer skeletons and fish in there. Amended with rock dust and lime just on the top, at roughly a bag of lime and 1/3 yard scoop of rock dust every 8 feet- except I ran out of rock dust part way. Second is a 24" layer of chips from last summer set up as a three sisters garden, amended as above, maybe more fish and no deer. At this point it is about 12" deep. Third is the existing silvopasture rows which are chips from 2 to three years ago, mostly about 2.5 years old. Initially they were 24" deep, now down to maybe 10". No amendments in those rows. Call them "hills", "sisters" and "silvo"...

Varieties were all moschata from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I intend on getting some hybridization and developing my own a la Joseph Lofthouse, suited to this climate and growing system. I ordered 8 varieties and mixed them in a bag to randomly plant. I have no idea yet what is doing well. Will update. One exception is the Guinea Bean which has been a wild success compared to other summer squash in this system.




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Nice, TJ!  Love the experiment!  Looking forward to seeing the harvest!
 
Tj Jefferson
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Whew! pictures posted! Been an internet struggle for a while!

Anyway, the big issues here are squash bugs. Moisture is generally not a problem with a modest amount of mulch. The idea for this was to get a crop and break the mulch down into lovely soil faster. Borers can be a problem, but I haven't seen them much in the last month. They took out a bunch early.

General observations: The squash needs soil. I put in a couple shovels of mixed soil per hill in the big hill planting, and maybe one shovel in the sisters and silvo areas. The best plants are in the thin mulch, the other ones looked stressed for a long time. I dropped some seeds at the base of the hill when planting and they are the best looking. Oops. So maybe plant at the base and let them climb. Second, I tried other plants in the hills- melons, beans and tomato, and the only ones doing anything are the tomatos. File that away, tomatoes in the deep chips...

Second, I did compost tea on half of them in the hill (the far half). This was aerated 24-48 hours and had Azomite mixed in at application. Control was the same stuff but not aerated, just mixed and applied. No difference. I think the minerals and maybe molasses and fish emulsion are beneficial, but I am not going to bother aerating for squash. Far easier to just mix and spray the components. Not saying it doesn't matter, saying it doesn't matter here, for winter squash grown this way...

Third, three sisters turned into one lonely sister. The corn got about knee high and crapped out. The only thing doing OK was some sorghum I planted as a backup upright, but even that struggled. I think I got whacked by corn borers, but I am not sure. The beans (scarlet runner) never really did well. Beans also underperformed in the hills and in my young back to eden gardens, so I don't know how to build the nitrogen at this point. I have some volunteers in the eden garden that I hope to identfy, they are doing well, but are not an edible. The sisters garden has goumi on both sides as well.

Fourth, squash bugs/borers. No borers at all in the more mature mulch, the strips are only a couple feet wide and there are all kinds of predators out there. There are occasional squash bugs, but nothing too bad. The worst squash bug infestation was in the hills, but the hills are also the closest plants to my nieghbor who I cannot convince to euthanize his zucchini patch, and he is basically farming the bugs at this point. Borers were really bad on stressed plants in all sections. The plants got pulled if the had frass and looked like they got hit. The survivors are filling in.

 
Tj Jefferson
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Some updates: Big wood chip hill (compost tea on near half, compost tea ingredients only on far half) not very productive or happy. The ones doing well are rerooted in real soil or fell down there when planted. Melons a total loss.

One sister garden is amazing. Vines are very robust. Depth to true soil is about 12” at this point. Melons also failed here. Scarlet runner beans are making a comeback. We can confirm walnut is not a problem with squash or runner beans as they are growing on the heartnut and in the leaf litter.

Field plantings - doing well. Close to the neighbors farming squash bugs got hit pretty well, but using the controls I have discussed (and yesterday was the first DE application this year) I would say I’m happy. Definitely trap plants work well. Squash growing on the trees, it really likes persimmon which is interesting.
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Tj Jefferson
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Highest mortality from borers. One right below blue bird box which I think is occupied. I have done necropsy on about ten vines and all but one was borers.

Seeing small spots of downy mildew and plan on using compost tea this weekend.

Have not watered this summer. Sorry phone post so grammar and spelling are suspect.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Looking back at the original post, I have found possible solution for the upright in the three sisters setup. Sesbania.
 
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I tried this with mixed results this summer. Since I just moved at the start of May, I didn't have a garden going. I had wood chips delivered at the end of May, and I threw squash and watermelon seeds right in the wood chips, hoping to get something to eat this summer. Quite a few germinated, and I watered them with fungal and microbial inoculants, but growth was dismal, so I started to give them some liquid fish and EM (effective microorganisms). They started to green up and grow, but the liquid fish has only been a crutch really, but I have gotten many squash to eat for supper and I have one watermelon about the size of a small log. I believe that come next spring, and the wood chips have had 9 or so months to decay, I ought to have some better results. I just started four 72-hole cell trays will fall cool weather crops and will transplant those in September, and it will be more regular applications of liquid fish to get them to grow, but I want food from my garden, dammit
 
Tj Jefferson
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James try Sesbania. It was a contaminant in some coop poop OMRI fertilizer I got when I noticed the nitrogen deficiency, and it’s probably 6’ high and pretty wood. That’s despite the deer eating it twice this summer.

I can send you some seeds, growing readily in pretty fresh chips. Or get some Coop Poop!
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I really appreciate the scientific method you used here.  Even if you confirmed what most of us would have assumed would happen (that stuff will not grow well in wood chips alone as your medium), it's still good research.  Yet where the roots were able to get in contact with the "normal" soil below the wood chips, you had success.  Again, what we would have assumed to happen, but you've proven it.

So . . . thoughts for further exploration.

1.  Could you plant in a pocket of soil that extends all the way down to the "true" soil below --- about 3 shovelful's of soil (per plant) in the middle of a wood chip ocean?  For a little bit of work, you'd get all the mulching benefits of the chips, while giving the plant roots a bridge to get down to the soil below.

2.  Was the problem a lack of moisture?  A lack of nitrogen?  A lack of other micro or macro nutrients?  A lack of soil to root contact (as the chips would be loose and not compacted)?  All of the above?

3.  You mentioned that stuff planted out toward the edge of the wood chips survived and did pretty well.  How many inches of chips did the roots have to go through before they hit soil?  2"?  3"?  more?  I'd be curious.

4.  As for predation by the bugs, I would imagine that if the plants are already struggling, the bugs would attack the weakest ones first.  Thus, seeds sewn directly into wood chips would sprout initially (using the nutrition contained in the seed itself) and would grow for a bit, before they'd start to struggle for lack of nutrition.  THEN the weakened plants would be targeted by opportunistic bugs.  And as the bug population grew, they took out all the other plants as well.

What would happen if those plants had been stronger from the start?  If they had had good soil to seed contact from their germination onward?  Would they have been tougher and better suited to fight off the bugs?

5.  Would there have been as much insect predation if it hadn't been as much of a monoculture?  That's sort of the idea of the 3-sisters, but what if there had been even more than 3 plants in that wood chip berm?  Like 10?  Or more?  

Live and learn, right?  Thanks again for sharing the pictures and your accumulating knowledge.  As a fellow wood chip aficionado, I love it when people take a risk and try out new stuff like this.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Look what I found out taking a picture of the Sesbania. Assassin bug yeah baby!
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James Freyr
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Marco Banks wrote:

1.  Could you plant in a pocket of soil that extends all the way down to the "true" soil below --- about 3 shovelful's of soil (per plant) in the middle of a wood chip ocean?  For a little bit of work, you'd get all the mulching benefits of the chips, while giving the plant roots a bridge to get down to the soil below.



I just did this about 5 hours ago this morning. I don't want to hijack TJ's thread, but I did want to share this. I was sowing peas and I'm trying this as a new technique instead of the mixed results I had with sowing squash seeds right in the wood chips, and I hope to try and increase my odds of having a successful crop of peas to eat this fall. These are small hand dug holes with some fistfuls of potting soil in them compared to shovelfuls and while I don't have any results to comment on yet, I'll report back with my experience in a few months.
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James Freyr wrote:

Marco Banks wrote:

1.  Could you plant in a pocket of soil that extends all the way down to the "true" soil below --- about 3 shovelful's of soil (per plant) in the middle of a wood chip ocean?  For a little bit of work, you'd get all the mulching benefits of the chips, while giving the plant roots a bridge to get down to the soil below.



I just did this about 5 hours ago this morning. I don't want to hijack TJ's thread, but I did want to share this. I was sowing peas and I'm trying this as a new technique instead of the mixed results I had with sowing squash seeds right in the wood chips, and I hope to try and increase my odds of having a successful crop of peas to eat this fall. These are small hand dug holes with some fistfuls of potting soil in them compared to shovelfuls and while I don't have any results to comment on yet, I'll report back with my experience in a few months.



I use that method extensively and I have had very good results.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Marco Banks wrote:I really appreciate the scientific method you used here.  Even if you confirmed what most of us would have assumed would happen (that stuff will not grow well in wood chips alone as your medium), it's still good research.  Yet where the roots were able to get in contact with the "normal" soil below the wood chips, you had success.  Again, what we would have assumed to happen, but you've proven it.

So . . . thoughts for further exploration.

1.  Could you plant in a pocket of soil that extends all the way down to the "true" soil below --- about 3 shovelful's of soil (per plant) in the middle of a wood chip ocean?  For a little bit of work, you'd get all the mulching benefits of the chips, while giving the plant roots a bridge to get down to the soil below.

2.  Was the problem a lack of moisture?  A lack of nitrogen?  A lack of other micro or macro nutrients?  A lack of soil to root contact (as the chips would be loose and not compacted)?  All of the above?

3.  You mentioned that stuff planted out toward the edge of the wood chips survived and did pretty well.  How many inches of chips did the roots have to go through before they hit soil?  2"?  3"?  more?  I'd be curious.

4.  As for predation by the bugs, I would imagine that if the plants are already struggling, the bugs would attack the weakest ones first.  Thus, seeds sewn directly into wood chips would sprout initially (using the nutrition contained in the seed itself) and would grow for a bit, before they'd start to struggle for lack of nutrition.  THEN the weakened plants would be targeted by opportunistic bugs.  And as the bug population grew, they took out all the other plants as well.

What would happen if those plants had been stronger from the start?  If they had had good soil to seed contact from their germination onward?  Would they have been tougher and better suited to fight off the bugs?

5.  Would there have been as much insect predation if it hadn't been as much of a monoculture?  That's sort of the idea of the 3-sisters, but what if there had been even more than 3 plants in that wood chip berm?  Like 10?  Or more?  

Live and learn, right?  Thanks again for sharing the pictures and your accumulating knowledge.  As a fellow wood chip aficionado, I love it when people take a risk and try out new stuff like this.


Let me try to answer one at a time sorry for the bulky post but I’m phone only and I can’t remember the questions unless I scroll up!

1) I did make a hole in the chips with a relatively substantial amount of soil in the big mound. Like 2-3 shovels of soil mixed with compost. This did not go to the underlying soil. The one sisters area got much less soil in each “pot” maybe half a shovel. Enough to be within maybe 6” of underlying soil. The ones in thinner chips definitely perform better. The ones in the field got maybe a handful or two of soil, but the chips are much more degraded. I used about one yard of soil/compost for the whole planting, because I wanted to push the envelope. I would do the sisters planting again in recent chips, but not as deep as the big hill.

2) lack of minerals and general soil interaction. The chips are moist as can be down a couple inches. Cannot rule out nitrogen but I have put down many lbs of coffee grounds, peed on them and they have dead fish and deer underneath. I think a modified hydroponic solution might work, but there was plenty of minerals in the rock dust, likely not enough soil microbes to assist the roots to access them.

3) the big hill is several feet deep. The idea was no soil access. The sisters varies a little but probably 6-12 inches to soil. The field plants from 12-3” and I don’t see a big difference in the cohort.

4) the bugs were definitely worst in the big hill. They are also the closest to the neighbors overrun with bugs on the zucchini and downwind. All the close plants got hit, in the field as well. The field is an unintentional poly culture, and there are more spiders and predators, but mortality was similar. Cultural control was effective in both. The strongest predictor of bugs and mortality was proximity to the big farm and cultivar. I’m still waiting for some to fruit to confirm cultivar and will give the tally when I get it. Of note, ALL areas were planted in multiple species, the squash was the only thing that survived other than tomatoes which are doing great.

In basic answer I think letting them root in soil and spread into chips would be awesome. They send in secondary roots way better than melons and could access water from the chips and minerals from the soil.

I’m encouraged by tomatoes in chips completely without soil. I have a bunch if volunteers and they look really good. Next year that may be the big hill primary species. Just threw some skunk Roma’s in there whole and they are producing after about six weeks! This was in the garden with the Sesbania and that is only 12” deep but I’m going to try. Tomatoes seem to be more potassium loving and acid loving and even pretty fresh chips might be fine. Those got no added nitrogen other than me peeing in there a few times but it’s a 20x50 space. Unlikely to be a big factor.
 
Tj Jefferson
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In the big hill I planted dill bush beans melons and squash. In the sisters i planted scarlet beans mullet corn and sorghum with squash. In the field I planted a list too long to recount. Just all the seeds I could find at the end of planting in a mixture.
 
Tj Jefferson
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James I think you will be fine, you really just need enough soil for germination and initial grass of roots to get to soil. Intersingly carrots did poorly but slasify and parsnips are banging. Beets poorly. Spinach meh.

I think it’s very dependent on the chip age and depth. I’m assuming two years for most crops. Onions did well and potatoes too in pretty early chips. Not big but they produced. I got a tripling on potato and 5x the potato onions.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Super disappointing development. Last night the deer hammered the squash. They haven’t touched them before. They ate about 20 squash at various stages of ripening. They ate leaves and even vines. What the heck? Anyway I harvested all but the Seminole pumpkins, which are really late to mature.

For what it is worth, the best performance was one called Mrs Amersons from Southern Exposure. Almost zero bug issues. Really needs a lot of room vines were over 30’ long. They go all the way from the chips, into the woods and back into the chips. I had three different butternut varieties and I really can’t tell the difference. I don’t really care at this point since I am making a landrace, but I didn’t see an obvious winner. The clear loser was the argyrosperma. I got one squash from a whole packet of seeds. Tennessee vining pumpkin will not get replanted the bugs were awful. I got some “cheese” squash and they are very tasty and I am glad they are in the mix.
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It's been interesting following your progress. Too bad about the deer. Deer are dirty rotten bastards.  Sometimes they will just take a bite out of everything instead of finding one thing and eating it down. Is that what they did to you?

Looking at your mountains of material, I was thinking there's no way I can get giant piles like that, since nobody chips much wood in the Philippines, at least I haven't seen it. Then I remembered bagasse, the woody leftovers from sugar production. I'm going to try at least one big run of bagasse piled just like your chips and I will test to see what wants to grow in it. I think pig manure might be the best thing for creating fertility pockets. Some types of squash do really well and they are good sellers at market. I expect that my piles will rot down pretty quickly, but that's fine as long as I can keep a good supply coming.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Dale there are very good squash in the tropics. Southern exposure has at least two varieties from Thailand that might be resistant to whatever bugs are problematic in the tropics. In the Caribbean they use argyrosperma but those are not tropical like the Philippines. Traditionally in Venezuela I had maxima squash but they were unlikely to have been organic. They might be fine. I think squash is uniquely capable of taking nutrients from different areas which is amazing when you are starting out. Whatever people grow there should be easy to procure from seeds if you purchase squash at the market. I’d love to see how it goes for you. Would recommend the cucuzza Italian squash for pig forage. I have three plants and can’t keep up with the production!
 
Dale Hodgins
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We ate several types of squash, but there's no way for me to know how it was grown. They are very good and the entire rind is edible.

With most crops, I will try to market them as human food first, and feed pigs all of the substandard stuff and the vines. Squash is typically about $0.40 a pound. I saw it growing at one house, and there appeared to be about 15 on one plant.

Large amounts of bagasse, rice hulls, peanut hulls and other waste are available in certain places.
 
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