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 II

Now we get to meet the residents of our soils.  You might be shocked to learn there can be billions of them in a handful of good garden loam.  The residents include the worms and bugs you can see, plus more worms and bugs you cannot see with the naked eye.  There are very few of those, however, numbering in the tens of thousands in your little garden.  Next come the fungi, bacteria, and viruses.  Thousands of different kinds, millions each of most, billions of some.

Some work against each other, but the level of cooperation at the microscopic level amazes the people who get to watch on electron microscopes.  All sorts of invisible critters feed one another, trade water and minerals for sugars and other foods.  They provide transportation, purification, waste disposal, and negotiate contracts between grouchy neighbors.  They work together to keep enemies in check, or even to make friends of the enemies.  Or eat them.  And they also tend to the plants in the garden.

So many little critters live in the soil it can be overwhelming to try and sort them out. . . especially since we can’t see them.  But we don’t need to see or hear them to know they’re doing their jobs and staying in balance.  Figuring out the microbes is as simple as watching the garden.

In fact, plants are nearly helpless, even somewhat pathetic without the various microbes that feed and water them, allow them to breath, moderate the nutrients and nurse them along.  I might even suggest that tending to the microbes is the most critical critical aspect of gardening — especially over a long time and many seasons.

Like a pet, soil needs good food and water, adequate shelter, exercise, some sunshine, interaction with others, and plenty of fresh air.

This series may get deeper and more involved, but the next article simply considers the easiest and most effective ways to keep your microbes and worms happy so you can enjoy great soil, a beautiful garden, and good food for your table.  It will also address the differences between plants and trees, and ways to improve your soil for either one.

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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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