Compost, Not Labor or Money

As a huge fan and practitioner of composting, it might sound strange to hear me say, “it isn’t necessary.”  What I mean is, “our participation is optional.”  And what I mean by that is, “if you spend much time or money, you waste your resources.”

Compost happens.

Once you put carbon containing stuff with air and water, it composts.  It will happen in your gutters, in the landfill, on your lawn or in your garden.  Compost “recipes” can speed things up by adding nitrogen mostly, but newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, fence posts and tree trunks all compost just fine if you aren’t in a hurry.  It just might take a while.

There is a composting method used in Scandinavian countries called Hugelskultur (with an umlaut over the first u) where trees are piled up and buried in leaves and soil in the fall.  The mixture is planted in the spring and for all following seasons while the trees rot and bacteria dig out nutrients to feed to the mounded gardens.

One highly effective compost method is to spread your organic stuff all over the ground in the fall and let winter start the process of mixing it into the bacteria and fungi rich soil, with the help of rooting animals.  By spring, earthworms will eat it, and it can be planted.

The same principle holds for mulch.  Spreading up to a foot of wood chips, bark, straw, hay, grass clippings, yard waste, leaves (especially all of the above together!) around your plants while they grow or on your garden over winter might be the best way to release the food and develop your soil.

If you have the room and resources, you can build big piles of composting stuff and gather the heat for your house, shop, or garage.  A really good square yard of compost gives off a steady 1000 btu of heat per hour all winter long while it prepares your garden soil for spring.

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Joys V, Compost biochemistry

Chemistry and biology, in the easiest forms.  As promised, this will be suitable for high school dropouts, or even early mornings with the first cup of coffee. 

Carbon is life.  If a substance includes carbon it is called “organic.”  If there is no carbon, the substance is inorganic.  Organic involves organisms or the products of their life processes.  Carbon dioxide, CO2, is a product of life processes.  It is what most living things breath out.

Plants and animals release carbon as CO2, but we don’t call it breathing when a plant does it because they don’t have lungs.  Every bacterium, dog, fish, tree, pansy and bird releases lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

Trees and plants also release O2 into the air.  Two separate processes.  For living, they “breath out” CO2, but for growing, they take carbon from the air and release O2.  As a young tree grows it provides oxygen.  When it matures the balance means no net CO2 or O2.  When it gets old, and ultimately dies, all of the carbon it stored goes back to the air it came from as it rots.  It’s a cycle.

ROT is a misleading term, left over from a few hundred years ago. Rotting sounds like something a dead tree does, or a fallen hero, but dead trees do nothing.  They don’t even fall down without help.  What happens to trees is that they get eaten, reused, recycled.  Everything organic gets eaten.  Always, always, something out there wants the carbon and the nitrogen stored in something else.  That process of being eaten results in what we call “rot.”  That ugly name is the muscle and backbone of all life on earth.  It is composting, and God and the Bible spoke of these things long before Leeuwenhoek discovered “animalcules” in his mouth.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”  Composting is the very natural process of restoring life on earth.  As corrupt and fallible as it is, we are all part of the never-ending cycle.

With that understanding, it’s time to move on to some dangers and challenges of agriculture.  It never needs to be a crisis.

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Joys of, IV – Ratios

Compost needs a few things.  Nature provides all of them: carbon and nitrogen, moisture, oxygen, warmth, and microorganisms.  Compost also enjoys movement, like being stirred or tossed periodically.

Articles and books focus heavily on the C/N ratio, or carbon to nitrogen.  Yes, ideally you start with 20 – 40 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, but while that ratio speeds up the process, composting takes place even in a stack of damp cardboard at 500:1.  It just may take a few years. Mix in some coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings, or grass to that cardboard and speed things up.

To get close to the ideal, just mix up stuff from trees (bark, leaves, wood chips, sawdust, cardboard and paper, twigs, etc.) and stuff from plants (vegetables, grass, flowers, fruit remains and peels, stalks, vines, weeds) and mostly vegetarian animal poop (horses, rabbits, cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, etc.; birds eat lots of rodents, small fish, insects, voles and moles, but process food differently so its okay for composting.)  If you get close to 1/2 and 1/2, great.

Too much nitrogen is rare, but if it does happen you will smell ammonia.  The cure is to add more carbon.

In fact, smell is a great tool for the composter.  If it smells like rotten eggs or poop, the compost is too wet and packed down.  It lacks air.  It needs “fluff.”  Go easy on the water for a while, and add straw or twigs, wood chips, bark, or cardboard.

The only real “compost don’t” is meat, or meat-eater poop.  Bad bacteria is the main reason.  Unwanted animals is the other.  E coli and other nasties come with the gut stuff.  It simply is not worth the risk.  Period.  Don’t do it.

Unless you are in a big hurry, composting what you have works just fine, because no matter what your ratios are, the end product has close to 10:1 carbon to nitrogen.  That’s exactly what your garden wants!  How can that be?  The result of the compost is the result of biology and chemistry  Even if you failed chemistry and biology with honors, the next lesson will make sense.  I promise.


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Joys of, Part III

For novices, too much has been written about compost.  Much of it is confusing or wrong.  I will try to avoid anything unnecessary, and include everything important in around 500 words.

Compost is decaying organic stuff.  Organic stuff is anything alive or carbon containing — animals, vegetables, trees, poop, hair, fingernails, motor oil, Uncle Harry, rubber or plastics.  All can become compost, but some are much easier and some are dangerous to use.  If it still looks like a plastic bag, shines like oil, or smells like poop, it’s not yet compost, and could be dangerous or even deadly.

Start with the premium stuff — kitchen scraps, garden residues, and coffee grounds.  Put them in a bucket under your sink and transfer them to a pile in your yard every day or two. Add lawn clippings if you don’t soak your yard with ChemLawn or Sevin-like chemicals.  Add autumn leaves.  (It helps to run the lawnmower over them first to chop them up.)  Keep the pile moist, but not soaking wet.  Cover it with a tarp before big rains.  If you turn this pile over every week or so, you will have nice compost in a few weeks, but it will be great stuff within a year no matter what.

The only shortcoming to this style of composting is a fairly small batch of compost.  How much compost should you target?  A fair rule of thumb is to replace more than you remove.  How much more depends on what you start with, and what you hope to have for the following season.  If your yard and garden are in great shape, you need less than if you start with sand or clay.  You will want at least an inch of compost, so a 10 x 12 foot garden needs a minimum of 10 cubic feet of compost just to stay in shape.

How much it takes to “create” a garden (or healthy lawn) from bad dirt is also fairly simple.  20% organic matter down to at least 10″ deep is a good minimum target. That means 2″ of compost added to the top 8″ of dirt.

Depending on where you live and why you have bad dirt in the first place, you might have to add that much each year to keep the soil healthy, at least for a while.  That becomes much easier than the original dose of compost, though.  Adding mulch, turning under the spent crops, and simply growing things will help protect the soil and let the garden compost itself.  This is very important.

Mulching is the easiest compost.  Organic mulch consists of anything reasonable to compost — even compost itself.  Spread it on the surface of the garden around the plants.  It will cover the soil to protect it from radical temperature changes and pounding rains, and let the bacteria and fungi, worms and critters pull it down, chew it up, convert it, and bind it to the existing soil.

The next article will be a couple of examples of great composts and composting ideas, plus the easiest cures for composting problems.  Then it will be time to look at various other “permaculture” ideas.  There may be several more of these articles.  There’s just so much to tell!

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Joys of, Part I

To learn about soil required me to forget almost everything I learned about dirt.  Most dictionaries define dirt as “a substance that soils a person or thing.”   That’s not nice, because “soil” is another word for dirt!  Such abuse.  “She treats him like dirt.”  “He soiled her reputation.”  “There was dog dirt in the yard.”   “Politicians collect the dirt on everyone.”

Both words come with shady backgrounds, too.  Dirt is from drit, meaning poop.  Soil comes from soiller, a wild boar’s wallow.

Forget all that.  Although not entirely correct, think of dirt as crushed rocks (silt, sand, gravel, and clay) and soil as crushed rocks with living and formerly living things  in it.  The third (and least used) word for our study  is loam.  Loam is soil with good character and history.  It has lots of humus.  Humus adds stability, efficiency, and the sort of food, housing and entertainment that attracts a diverse neighborhood.

In lousy dirt (such as the natural stuff in Camp Verde) there is little besides the crushed rock.  It usually looks gray, but may be reddish from iron oxide (rust) or even slightly yellow, blue, brown, or green from other excess minerals like sulfur, copper, manganese, etc.  The important thing to remember for gardening or farming, though, is that you want black dirt.  Very black.  Light absorbing, non-reflective, unwavering black.  Black soil results from organic stuff — things that have lots of carbon.  (To visualize great soil, think of totally burnt toast.)

Farmers and gardeners have tried many ways to get this burnt toast into their dirt, and when the black of the soil wears off, they try to paint it back on with various chemicals, generally ammonium something, or something nitrate.  Ammonium and nitrate are the plus and minus ions that contain nitrogen in the most usable form.  You don’t need to know about ions, though.  Just realize that plants use the black in the soil to make the green and the leaves on plants.  When the soil turns gray, plants turn yellow.

It might sound strange, but the gorgeous, rich blackness in soil comes from death and decay.  Part of God’s (nature’s, if you can’t accept a Supreme Being with intelligence) bizarre gift is that things must die to sustain life.  As death happens, life happens.  Think of it as “the never ending cycle of life,” just like in the Lion King.  Death is the primary instrument of life.  You can see it in the garden store, too.  Blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, and various forms of poop all represent dead things for your garden’s health.  That’s all it takes, sort of.

In spite of the simplicity of this, you will not necessarily get good soil by killing things, pets, or neighbors in your back yard.  The next point to confirm is that the death needs coordination, balance, and some heat to do its thing.  If you watch crime and forensics shows, you might think of it as cold blooded murder won’t properly rot.  And that is also an unbalanced way to look at it.

Of course I must continue this.  All we have so far is rocks and dead stuff.  The next part, rotting and mixing, gets really exciting because this is where we introduce the stars of the story, who do most of their work while living!

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The Joys of Earth, Part 0.

I’ve lived in several places, but only tried gardening in three:  Detroit, Michigan, with deep, rich loam; a mountainside in Conklin, New York, with almost pure gray clay and endless rain; and here in Camp Verde, Arizona, with nonstop rock-popping sunshine, very little rain, and no humidity.

Central Arizona has an odd climate.  Although 121+F (50C) happens on rare occasion, and June consistently reaches over 100F (38C) daily,  overnights remain comfortably cool all summer.  We also receive an average of nearly 15 inches of rain every year (plenty to grow almost anything except rice or cranberries.)

The challenge here is poor seasonal water distribution.  We get less than one single inch in the three months from April 1 to June 30 . . . precisely when we need it to grow crops.  And then we get too much in July, August, and most of September, along with the brutal winds,  heat and humidity of monsoons.

While the USDA officially classifies us as Zone 8B, we have characteristics from Zones 3 – 11.  We can grow a lot of things here with “extra help,” but few things just love our climate.  Except people.  Honestly, Zone 8 is a catchall for several hot places that don’t quite fit anything else, but get too cold for overwinter growing. We have it better than most Zone 8s.

Some day maybe I’ll learn to grow things. but for the time being, I’ve got great soil down to its science.  What a joy to have great soil!

It can be fun learning about soil and climate, and they are the first steps in gardening anywhere.  I plan a series on healthy soil starting tomorrow.  Wherever you live you can help yourself and your lawn or garden a great deal, save a bunch of money, and even make life better for bees and polar bears.

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