Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How To Make Dirt

It was one of those invitations you just don't get very often. Like meeting the queen of England (or, more to my liking, her Corgis).

So when David Kobos (left), whom I was interviewing about the history of coffee roasting in Portland for an upcoming MIX magazine article on local micro-roasters, mentioned that he has an annual gathering to make dirt and would I be interested, I jumped at the chance. I mean, how often do you get to find out that kind of thing? Plus the invitation included not only a tour of his organic farm but a big breakfast and some ass-kicking coffee to wash it all down with.

Last Sunday found me tooling out to the wilds of Clackamas County in, appropriately enough, Dave's old Toyota truck. I pulled up to the Kobos homestead, a gorgeous 1915 farmhouse that he and his wife, Susan, have spent the last few decades restoring. Out beyond it were his geese, a sheep and about 80 chickens, plus a huge organic garden with the most beautiful soil I've seen in a long time.

After a couple of mugs of strong coffee (a Kenyan estate roast, Kobos pointed out) to fortify us for the dirt-making, Kobos, his son, Adam, and I headed out to the little barn, which was the original home on the property. David had set out all the supplies, so we spent the next hour or so filling buckets, sieving the peat moss and compost to remove debris (top photo) and mixing it in his ancient wheelbarrow (right). By the end we had eight or so 50-lb. bags of gorgeous seed-starting mix, which Kobos said was also good for potting plants.

And that breakfast? I barely stopped eating long enough to notice what I was putting in my mouth, but I remember a lovely egg strata, light, sweet scones made by his daughter-in-law, Betty, and some authentic (and unbelievably delicious) Polish kielbasa that her parents had brought in their luggage from Queens. And of course, more of that wonderful coffee.

If you'd like to make your own dirt, Mr. Kobos has supplied the recipe. And check the "Note" below it for a hot tip on a great source for organic supplies (I'll be doing a separate post on it soon!).

Seed Starting Mix
From David Kobos of Kobos Coffee Company (and so much more)

Use a 2-gallon bucket for measuring:
3 buckets peat moss
3 buckets steer manure (best is Dairy Manure Compost from Boardman)
1/2 c. dolomite lime
1 bucket perlite
1 bucket vermiculite
2 c. organic fertilizer (see below)

If not using sifted peat moss and steer manure, dump buckets onto 1/2" framed screen (photo, top) and sift by hand to remove debris. Add remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly using a shovel or garden hoe. Using bucket, dump into 50 lb. seed bags. Makes 2 1/2 cubic feet.

Note (from David Kobos): Perlite can usually be found at Home Depot. Vermiculite is harder to find but Concentrates, Inc. [a local source for organic agricultural supplies since 1938 - KAB] has it along with all the components of the organic fertilizer mixes. Dairy manure compost is available at Mt. Scott Fuel, Clackamas Landscape Supply and numerous other places. They will usually allow you to buy it by the 5-gallon bucket if you don't have a pickup truck. Most will deliver by the unit or half unit (a unit is 7.25 yards—who came up with that one?).

Perlite and Vermiculite prices have risen sharply because of high energy prices to process and then transport them. If you can't find Vermiculite, use double Perlite.

The recipe above makes a 2 1/2 cubic feet and costs little more than $4 per batch. Compare this with Whitney Farms seed starting mix. Most commercial potting soils are primarily bark dust—there's no comparison.

Organic Fertilizer Mixes
From David Kobos

I buy these fertilizer components at Concentrates, Inc., in 50-lb. bags. These mixes are by volume, not weight. I did the math a few years ago and the cost per pound of these mixes was less than 30 cents. The catalogs will charge you $6 to $7 for a 5-lb. bag.

Mix #1:
4 parts seed meal (cottonseed, soybean, linseed, etc.)
1 part dolomite lime
1 part ground phosphate rock (or 1/2 part bone meal)
1 part kelp meal

Mix #2:
1 part ground phosphate rock
1 part blood meal
1 part greensand


Joe said...

I have been tearing out what hair I have left on top looking for vermiculite. I am trying square foot gardening this year.

If I don't head out to Concentrates, there's a hydroponic shop on the westside near Aloha high school that sells a similarly sized bag.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Good luck, Joe. Let us know how it goes!

And enlighten us on square foot gardening. I'm not aware of it.

Joe said...

Hi kab,
I just posted my first steps, if you're interested.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Cool! Thanks for letting us know and including the links in your post. (And if you'd rather just click, you can see Joe's post here.)