Potatoes!

So I stopped draggin my feet and got around to ordering my seed potatoes today. And thank goodness! My beloved Purple Vikings are sold out virtually everywhere! What has been taking so long is that I wanted to source as local as possible, but our local seed potatoe provider was already oversold. So I sent out a wide net rummaging through farmers market links to track down our favorite farmers in Wisconsin.

That actually worked pretty well and I ended up forming a nice partnership with Josh at Driftless Organics for 100#’s of Carolas and another 50# of Yukon Golds. Shipping costs? I pick them up at the Madison Farmers Market on 4/19. Nice.

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To fill in the cracks I went back to Fedco’s Moose Tubers for 20#’s of Butte (highest vitamin C and protien -did you know ‘taters had vitamin C? Heirlooms do!) and another 20#’s of Green Mountain. Overall pretty happy with my orders: Carola is described as the “brandywine” of tubers, Yukon Gold has the Brand Name “pull”, Butte is a super storage and uber nutritious type, and Green Mountain has been around for 120 years and is described as the most flavorful of all. It is also an extra late maturing so I can spread my labors some.

While I was at it I threw in 400 onion sets (Stuttgarter and Red Baron) since I am running out of seed tray space (536 tranplants!), and our restaurant client (not to mention my planned root cellar!) is interested in some.

As I am pulling out of my sick stupor, I am also looking at applying for a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant as well as a SARE research/producer grant to help fund this brain child of mine. This actually came about from a conversation I had with some ATTRA experts before I was sick. It seems that no one is pushing the envelope to the degree of sustainability that I am looking to in the Sub Acre Ag project, so instead of helping me answer my questions they encouraged me to get a grant to be able to tell others about it. As if I didn’t have enough hubris as it was! I figure I am writing 30,000 words on these projects already, might as well get a salary…

Jesus, I need to get healthy. And a clone.

-Rob

Co-Gen Hybrids

I drive a 2001 Honda Insight.  Its blue, and I love it.  I love how small it is.  I love how useful it is (built in cooler!).   And of course I love its 70+mpg in the summer and 55+ in the winter.  And this year with the addition of dedicated snow tires it has handled as much as 8″ of snow with aplomb –even with only 4″ of ground clearance.  It is one sweet ride.

One weakness of hybrids is that in steady state driving (freeway) you are not recharging the batteries which ultimately hurts your mileage, this is why most hybrids get better mileage in the city.  But now Honda is working on a new generation hybrid that adds a third technology -electrical co generation using the waste heat from the gas engine.   the technology is still a ways out, but I would love to see the waste heat that I am paying  $3.30 a gallon for (and my country is paying $1 trillion a year for) doing something other than running out the tail pipe.  Their prototype is seeing 3x the energy storage than from regenerative braking alone in a typical US freeway circuit.  Sweet!

Brief, but informative, write up here 

-Rob

Let the Planting Begin!

A week ago, I was covering a second shift for a peer, and availed myself of a rare afternoon at home to visit the Hoop House. Air temps were a balmy 9 degrees (F), and I used snow shoes to get to the greenhouse. However, it was a beautiful and sunny winter day, and the interior temps were an impressive 52 degrees! Due to the seemingly weekly blizzards and bitter cold I had not been out to visit my Spinach in almost 2 weeks, but I was very surprised (and pleased!) to find that they had been busy in my absence. There is enough top growth on the spinach that I felt comfortable sneaking a few leaves –divine! Though more stunted, the mache is also doing well and is even sweeter. The pac choy took a beating in the -14 nights and lost some top growth. But even here, there is new growth coming up. Very encouraging!

With that in mind, and our Last Frost Date (only!) 12 weeks out I figured it was time to get moving on my seed starting to fill the holes in the Hoop House where the radishes and claytonia succumbed to the bitter cold. We have had very mixed results starting seeds here in Suburbia. The South Window method worked good in year 1, but year 2 all I got was spindly tomatoes and I ended up losing them at transplant time. That cost almost $175 in transplants from Seeds Savers as I needed heirloom plants for my restaurant commitments. Given that I am most likely to need literally thousands of transplants this year something most be done. Enter the Grow lights.

I looked at Gardener’s Supply for what real lights cost -about $90-150 + shipping for a 48″ T-5, 4 bulb set. I’ll need at least two, and that seemed steep. Some online research led me to believe that there is not enough qualitative difference between the Green House Lights and decent shop lights, as long as you put a high Color Rendering Index (CRI) bulb (at least 84, 90+ preferred) in them. So I went off to Menard’s and found a slick concave shop light (claim 50% more reflection) for $24 that holds 2 T-8 or T-12 bulbs. None of the more energy efficient T-8 (32 watts) tubes had enough CRI for me, so I reluctantly went with some old school T-12 (40 watt) Grow Lux from Sylvannia with a CRI of 92. Bulbs were $4.50 each. So for about 66% less money I was in business. While I was there I picked up some new seed flats to replace to replace the ones that broke last year, as well as 32 quarts of chemical free seed starting mix and was still way ahead on money.

This morning the kids and I made a royal mess in the kitchen filling the 4 flats with mix and they did a great job sowing the seeds -apparently 4 year old fingers are more adept at pinching teeny pac choi seeds than I am! An hour or so of “work” and we had 144 spinach, 72 mache and another 32 pac choi started- almost 250 plants!. When we plant them in a month or so I will also direct seed more mache.

The spinach was up in 4 days, the mache in 5, and the pac choi is just starting to pop after about 8.  The mache  is on a heating mat, next time I will put it under the pac choi as ambeint temp in the basement is only about 55 degrees.

This week I will be starting another 144 spinach, 144 mache, and 64 more pac choi.  Luckily I found a cheap source of seed stating mix: $15 for 80 liters!

-Rob

Flu

Sorry for the lack of posts, but the house is on lock down with the flu (round #3!!).  This iteration involves persistent and mid/high fevers (102-104) and viscous body aches combined with either very upset stomach or bronchitis depending on the sufferer.

While our son is doing quite well in his public school system, being seriously ill once a month was not part of the bargain.  Having Mia and I being an at home tag parenting team up until age 5.5 meant, in missing daycare, Sprout’s first contact with virtually ALL the perennial school viruses came last September and now we are all getting a crash course in the New Antibodies.  Before we had kids I don’t think I was sick more than twice in the last decade…

Before we were struck low, I managed to get 250 transplants started under a newly purchased grow light.  Post will be coming soon.  By then I may even have pics of the sprouts.

Until till then we will continue trying not to move.  As an upside I am averaging a book every other day.  Currently on the Geography of Bliss, which is much needed break from reading about either how much the world needs saving, or how to, in fact, enact that saving.

-Rob

Chicken/Rabbit Tractors: Sub Acre Ranching

One of the most perplexing challenges of my Sub Acre Agriculture project will be to consistently and sustainably increase fertility in the soils to optimize yields over time. While this can be done exclusively through green manure cover crops, it is more efficient to combine a planned cover crop rotation with livestock manures. Andy Lee states in his book Chicken Tractor, that while he was at Intervale Center in Vermont he saw yields increase in one year with manure to the levels it took 4-5 years with (very) heavy compost applications. As this system is designed to be used in small landholdings, specifically medium to large Suburban yards, traditional livestock such as goats, horses, and cattle are not really an option. That leaves smaller critters -specifically poultry and rabbits.

Rabbits are a great option if you want to eat them for meat: they breed like, er, rabbits, they have manageable feed needs, and their manure is “cold” which makes for great vermi-compost and can even be directly applied to your beds (though wait before applying raw manure to any food crops!).  If, like us, you are not into eating your livestock you may go the route that Patti, the Garden Girl has chosen and raise Angora’s for fiber while still getting all the fertility benefits of the manure. She keeps them in rabbit “tractors”, portable pens that are sized to fit in her small raised beds so they apply their manure directly onto her gardens. Slick! Plus they are dang cute and very gentle around little ‘uns.  Think of them as a functional petting zoo!

We will be using chickens as I want to leverage several very useful attributes of being a chicken: scratching for food, pooping, laying eggs, and eating bugs. When confined to a small space, chickens will scratch to bare soil in their search for seeds and critters, all the while manuring as they go. In a traditional chicken pen this leads to hardpan and toxic levels of nitrates which can kill the soil. The trick is to let the chickens stay put long enough to prep the ground without damaging it-in other words you need to move the birds. Enter the Chicken Tractor. Much like Patti’s rabbit tractors, chicken tractors are moveable pens that house, feed/water, and protect the chickens while confining them to a specific area. In our case the beds are planned to be 3×40’. So our “tractors” will be 3.5′ x 12′-ish with roughly 10′ exposed to the ground allowing the birds to be moved down the beds eating, scratching, laying, de-pesting, and manuring as they go. The tractor will be mounted on 2×4 skids, perhaps with wheels on one end if it gets too heavy -I want it to be one person portable, and will be wrapped in poultry wire with a hutch for laying on one end.

Initially the Sub Acre Market Garden was designed to include the chickens within the rotation-moved as needed to strip off a crop and prep the ground for the next. This was proving to be very complicated: Where would the chickens go from late June to August when the majority of the beds were in crop? Would the chickens be able to scratch down the perennial covers like red clover? How in the heck would I maneuver the tractor into the middle of a diversified bed? Lots of problems. Thinking within this rotational framework was proving fruitless, and was sapping critical time and energy, so I broke down the rotation and rethought it from scratch. The solution I came up with was permitted by the fact that I have virtually unlimited space at the farm (20 acre farm, .1 acre garden). I now plan on laying out 2 gardens that mirror each other. The first will be tilled this spring with the 48″ tiller on the owners Kubota -this should be the only time that tines hit soil in this project. The beds will then be planted on a modified rotation, basically removing the perennial covers (Red Clover/Alfalfa) that were intended to add fertility-replacing them with the missing legumes like dry and snap beans. Covers will still be used, but they will be annuals like buckwheat and oats to keep the soil covered in between plantings in the Spring/Fall beds. Come fall the beds will be sowed with a rye/vetch or other winter hardy mix.

Meanwhile in the “mirror bed” will be the more locus for actually building fertility.  Cover crops, unless left in for more than a year, typically only maintain fertility when used in a vegetable rotation.  Taking the “mirror” bed out of production will allow it to be under cover for a full year, building critical root systems, while also adding fertility and building soil ecology through active additions of animal manures.  Goal is to add at least .25% organic matter each rotation.  Not only will this boost yields, it will also sequester roughly 2.5 tons of CO2 per acre!

To get things going, I will do a rough sheet mulch to remove the pasture grasses, and that will then be planted with a PVO mix (Peas, Vetch, Oats) on parts and Sudangrass on others to build fertility and smother any remaining plants. Planting both (and any others that you can recommend) I will be able to experiment with a variety of crops for ease of incorporation and their ability to sync with this system. Into this I will use a system of mowing (hopefully with my new scythe!) then chicken tractoring to harvest the lush growth and manure the beds all year. The chickens will be moved frequently enough to not kill the mixes until late in the season. Seeing as both the PVO mix and the Sudan Grass are capable of putting on 4 tons of biomass per acre I should have plenty of extra growth for supplemental on site composting to provide compost for our Eco Victory Garden projects. In 2009 these beds will be prepped for the veggie gardens that will rotate over. Beds that will hold early spring crops will be fall planted with a crop that winter kills like Oats. The mirror beds may also be used to grow winter fodder for the chickens by letting some oats go to seed. Making the paradigm shift to the Mirror Beds has completely freed my thinking to move onto other, more practical matters like Chicken Breeds, veggie cultivars, pen design, and problem solving how the heck I plan to grow 1000 transplants without a greenhouse! Expect a flurry of posts on these topics in the coming weeks before I start being forced to spend less time posting and more time doing.

I have already begun meeting with my restaurant clients to get their inputs and commitments. 2008 is shaping up to be a great year! To say that I am stoked for Spring is a huge understatement!

-A very excited Rob

Be the change!!

Urban Farming Thoughts

A reoccuring theme on Onestraw is my faith in Suburbia’s ability to produce enough food to make it a viable alternative the ag land it paved over.   It is an undeniable fact that our current urban planning system is completely addicted to the automobile and cheap oil.  My example is typical.  I drive 19 miles to work -each way- and the closest grocery store is literally 7 miles away.  And that is a Super Walmart.  Crap.  We typically drive to Madison to Whole Foods in our once a month Shopping Trip to stock up, and do weekly trips to a Natural Foods store near our Church (25 miles away -the density of Unitarian  congregations is not what it should be) for Soy Milk, Eggs, and other stables that we run out of more often.  Granted our town is small (2012 souls), but even 60 years ago it was a vibrant community.  My dream is that it can be again -a big driver of that is rekindling local food production.   Thanks to some fellow Stumbler, I stumbled upon (what a great idea!) some really great sites and ideas lately on this front.

First off there is Your Backyard Farmer.  Started by two women in Portland, the basic business plan is an “on site” CSA.  They will come to your home (or business!) and build a garden.  They will then tend it all year leaving the produce on your porch weekly for about $40/wk.  That is a little steeper than most CSA’s here in WI, but think of the upside to the consumer: no driving to delivery sites, free landscaping, and after you are done with the contract you have great friable soil in your own yard!  Year one they grossed over $2000 weekly on just their 50 gardens, not counting market sales and consulting.  Would work best in dense urban markets to limit drive time, but regardless: Really Exciting!

Second cool resource is the Mini Farms Network.   Very similar to a site that I had envisioned creating before I ended up deciding to continue blogging in this WordPress format.   Good high level introduction to small scale food production focusing on Raised Beds, low input, and appropriate technology (hand tools and bicycles).  Very informational and inspiring site.

Final Resource of the week will be the Ecological Farming Association. I, like many sustainable farmers (the term I typically use), am continuing to struggle finding an appropriate term for what I do.  I am “beyond Organic” in so far as they now have Organic Oreos and Cheerios.  There is a fundamentally difference in how I grow food than those growing 500 acres of veggies in a monocrop, controling weeds through intense cultivation, etc.  This is not to say that reduced spraying is a HUGE first step, but I feel that in many “industrial” Organic operations, the term Organic has moved closer to the status quo while myself and other sustainable farmers (to be!) remain committed to more wholistic ideals.  Ecological Farming is a term that is gaining momentum and includes the systems thinking that is inherent in most sustainable farms.  Still exploring this site, but it is very encouraging.

Even as I am ramping up specific planning (moved from veggie rotations to cultivar selection this week!) it is very encouraging to keep abreast of some of the other fantastic work that is being done out there!

Be the Change!

-Rob

Updates

It’s happening again, the distinct ying/yang effect of the amount of blogging waning as my amount of doing waxes.  Here are some quick updates to where some of the projects are at.

Market Garden 

BIG NEWS: I have permission to utilize as much of .5 acres as needed!  This is at the site about 4 miles from my home.  As reality sets in on the amount of work that this will take, I am thinking of sticking to just one 50×100 foot section that will be tilled under this spring, and then start a chicken tractor rotationally grazing what will be the other 50×100 garden.  This will allow for essentially ALL the beds to be taken out of production annually for soil building and grazed by 10-20 layers in 1-2 tractors.  As we get closer to planting time (OMG I have to start seedlings in less than 2 weeks!!) my research, planning, budgeting and shopping have gone into High Gear.  Uber exciting!

Eco Victory Garden

The presentation went over very well and we will be meeting again this weekend for a more in depth discussion.  The name appears to be morphing from a “victory garden” into a “Household Ecology Center” to stress the system thinking inherent in it.  Big Thanks to Emily at Eat Close to Home for her suggestion of using a second plastic barrel for the composter -that may very well make it to the final system: it saves $30, cuts an hour off the instalation and is better sized to the garden.  Lots of momentum on this

Winter Reading 

In addition to catalogues from Fed-Co, Johnny’s and Seed Savers, I am currently devouring Andy Lee’s Chicken Tractor  as I will be putting them to use in about 8 weeks.  Love his idea of simple straw bale structure for winter housing.   Also getting time in the queue is Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0 which is one of the most important books I’ve read.  Lays out the immediacy, magnitude, and potential solutions to the problems of our generation.   We need to Get Real.  Now.  On the less immediate and lighter side I am also dabbling with Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage.  I plan to build one of these with the farm owners who are letting me use their land.  I’ll need it to -on another property I intend to grow 1500+ lbs of potatoes…

Garden Planning

Another tip from Emily was GrowVeg.com. I signed up for their 30 day trial and so far the system is fairly slick and certainly faster than my cobbled together spreadsheets.  Really like the fact that you draw the plans and it calculates planting rates with numbers of plants and then builds a plant list including planting times, etc.  Interface is not as inuititve as I would like (very few hot keys), but its not bad.  Big downer is that it is a subscription based system, not a downloadable software pack.  At $35/year it will add up and I have to have internet to view the plans.  Grrr.

The reality of the coming year is sinking in.  I will be growing food on a scale completely outside any reference I have ever had.  It appears I will have livestock, and I will also be very involved in a local sustainability group that is dreaming big enough that we have booths at both our county fair and the MREA I am also still maintaining my 50hr/wk salaried job and then there are little things like my essential roles as husband and father…  I also would like to blog 70k words this year as I hope that others can continue to learn from my trials.  At least the days are longer in the summer…

Keeping perspective will be difficult this year, but I have had enough people offer help with the market garden that I am continuing to dillude myself that I can still juggle all these eggs without any breaking.

-Rob

Edible Flowers: Eat Beautifully

I have gone gonzo over edible flowers this winter. It started last year when the stand of our favorite farm at the market was giving away pints of nasturtium blooms with any order over $20. Our daughter loves flowers, so I decided to bring them home for that evening’s salad to see if it would go over. Not only was she hooked, but apparently Dad was too! I loved the added texture and zest, but even more it felt so incredibly decadent to eat flowers -the salad was almost to beautiful to eat!

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Fast forward to my winter project to create a garden design. Intrinsic in any Sustainable Garden/Farm is the inclusion of flowering plants to attract and maintain a diverse ecosystem that will balance the insect populations in your plot. But even more than that, I greatly prefer a diverse planting for the sheer beauty of a garden that is a’buzz with insects and with blooms beckoning the eye at every turn. To my occasionally poetic mind it helps to blend the stark intentional plantings of a harvest-able plot with a more natural landscape, easing the transition from natural system to structured society.

I have had some lament the “wasted” space of the perennial plantings around my sustainable market garden. They do admit that one could sell bouquets, but that isn’t really “farming”. But the truth of the matter is that an incredible amount of flowers are edible, better yet… they’re delicious!

Perhaps the most commonly eaten edible flower is Nasturtium, which adds a bit of zest to the salad. Also high on my list are the blooms of Chives (similar flavor to the greens), Pansies and Johnny Jump Ups (subtly sweet), Bee Balm (minty) and Borage which apparently taste oddly of cucumbers. As many of these flowers are perennials they fit in perfectly to my “edible hedgerow” approach to attracting benificials. One of the most comprehensive lists of edible flowers I have found, including descriptions can be found here.

The more diverse our plantings the more stable they become as they include multiple redundancies and supports, and I truly believe that is true of our diets as well. In dry beans, the more colorful the bean, the higher they are in antioxidants and other essential trace nutrients… could the same be true of other foods? Apparently very little has been researched on the nutrition of blooms, but dandelion blooms are rich in vitamins A and C, nasturtium flowers packed with vitamin C, and every flower is rich in pollen and nectar known to be rich in nutrients.

Besides, this deep into a dark Wisconsin Winter they help to bring a ray color into my research!

-Rob

Eco-Victory Garden: The Sustainable Salad

I posted recently about an idea for providing low cost garden systems that came to me while blog surfing. There is so much buzz about Michael Pollan’s new book, and at the same time so many of the Garden Blog set have Spring Fever and are challenging each other to various great ways to expand their gardens. But what if you read Pollan’s books, get all fired up about eating fresh food, but have zero experience with gardening and no garden blogger friends?

I had proposed building a small raised bed of cedar, and then coupling it with a small 1 cu yard compost bin, and a rain barrel. Combining the three would allow a household to grow local food (at least some salads), begin learning about waste recycling, and also water storage and harvesting. Below is my first crack at the prototypes this weekend. All told, well under $100 in materials (and that is including enough fencing to make 4 bins) and about 3 hours for this armchair handy man if I had built the rain barrel.

Enter my “Eco” Victory Garden:

Earth Victory Garden

The product I will present for our county’s sustainability group will not use the oak whiskey barrel due to pricing, but I included it for now since I have not yet received delivery of the plastic 55 gallon drums. The pitch that I will be making to the group this week, is that with some grant work or sponsors we will be able to provide these systems to the community for $75 or so… installed. With Plants!

In our own family, we started down the road to a more sustainable lifestyle due in large part to our desire to find healthier food for our kids, and just look where it has led! Everyone eats, and even on taste alone the difference in home grown heirloom food is evident to virtually anyone. Food is a great “in” with fence sitters, but its not the only one. Composting can seem like magic to those not familiar with natural systems “you mean garbage can turn into dirt?”. And in conversations I had selling over a hundred of rain barrels last year convinced me that they have a great ability to start conversations about recycling, wastefulness, and common sense practicality. Why not put all three into a turnkey system and start turning the some small portion of the wastes of suburbia to good use?

Though I spent some energy paring down the designs to inexpensive form, there are cheaper ways to do this, and certainly more environmentally friendly ones using reused materials, etc. But I am choosing to break some eggs to get an “in” with those just starting to look for ways to lower their impact. I am banking that an attractive, long lasting cedar system will allow us to reach a larger audience -to make a bigger impact.

Once this country grew local veggies to help a War Effort. I believe that now the time is right to grow veggies in a sustainable fashion, across the nation, to show the world that American can unite for something besides destruction. The end goal hasn’t changed: we are still fighting for the future of our children. But this time, the stakes are, if anything, higher.

Below I will give a high level “How To” to help you make one for yourself, or if in case you want to start a program in your area. Keep in mind that I studied philosophy not architecture or engineering and absolutely zero CAD design software was harmed in the making of these products.

Material List for the $36, 5’x 3′ Raised Bed :

  • 4 1.25″x6″x8′ cedar decking boards ($32.50)
  • 1 1″x 2″ x 8′ cedar board (only use 4′) ($3.25)
  • Handful of 4d coated nails.

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Cut the Cedar Decking boards into 5′ and 3′ pieces and then cut the 1″x2″ into 4, 11″ chunks. Use the 1×2 pieces as corner braces to support and nail the decking together. Done!

Material List for $48, 40″ Compost Bin:

  • 4 1″x4″x10′ Cedar Boards ($20)
  • 1 38″ piece of 1×2 left over from raised bed (free)
  • 120″ of 3′ coated wire fencing (I had to buy 50′ for $23)
  • 1 box 3/4″ poultry staples ($1)
  • Handful of 4d coated nails
  • 2″ Brass coated “L” brackets ($3)

Cut the 1×4 into 4 38″ pieces (verticals), and 7 40″ pieces. Cut 40″ of fencing and bend it flat. Using 2 38″ pieces lay them on the floor and center the 36″ fencing on the 38″ uprights leaving 1″ space on each. Now lay 2 of the 40″ horizontals on the 38″ pieces and the centered fencing and, once it is squared, nail the cedar boards together with 3-4 4d nails. It should look about like this:

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Now you need to tack the fencing on tight so the weight of the compost doesn’t bow it too badly:

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Try to hammer the poultry staples across corners of the fencing squares as shown to limit its ability to mover around. Repeat this for the other side. The back is tricky since you have to hold the side upright and then nail the 2 40″ cedar pieces on top the final 40″ fencing piece to complete the back of the bin. A helper or some clamps makes it possible. It might also be easier to just use a 120″ piece of fencing without cutting it. I will try that next time. Now, take that remaining 40″ board and use it to hold the bottom of the open front together. I know this makes the bottom uneven, but once it is in the yard you won’t notice. With the exception of the top brace (more on that in a minute), it should now look like this:

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Now for the final touch. A simple, open framed bin like this bows something awful without a top brace. But a fixed top brace makes turning the compost VERY frustrating. So I included a removeable top brace. Take the left over 1×2 from the raised bed and cut it to 38″. Using pilot holes, screw the “L” braces to each end and then place it on the top of the front of the bin as shown:

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The brace is sized to fit behind the front uprights which will prevent it from slipping off the front of the bin. Congrats! Your done!

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