Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An Introduction to Compost

What can be composted and what to avoid?

As a general rule, if it's a plant, part of a plant or was a plant, it can be composted. In addition, here are some things that are often overlooked: egg shells, coffee, tea bags, herbivore feces, chicken/duck/goose feces, plant based bedding material for the above, and shredded paper. Unused (unpainted) drywall scraps and wood ash may be used in limited proportions. Too much will through off the pH balance of the compost.

Avoid weeds that have gone to seed and keep in mind some partially developed seed-heads can pull enough nutrient from the cut plant to finish development. If questionable, lay the weeds in the sun until dry and before adding. Also avoid vegetables cooked with grease or meat should be avoided for the home composter. Finally, dog and cat feces should not be used to keep from spreading pathogens and disease to your garden/food supply. (There are sites that discuss composting dog feces for use on non-edible plants, but that is outside the focus of this blog.)

[This next paragraph involves composting meat and is not for the squeamish. Highlight the text to view or scroll down to skip.]

As a note, animals and offal may be composted, but require a large pile more suitable to a farm than a backyard. The process takes longer, but the material will break down, bones and all. Again, stick with herbivores and poultry unless spreading on pasture. If you have enough animals to be composting death loss and offal, I recommend keeping this a separate pile that is spread only on pastures to further limit a limited concern. There should still be plenty of manure, bedding, and vegetative compost left for the garden.

The largest concern of composting meat is attracting scavengers which can be a nuisance. A side benefit is hauling away the beef offal that won't be eaten can reduce processor fees as the butcher doesn't have to pay for disposal.

Does it matter what I put in?

There should be a mix of material put in the pile in order to speed the breakdown process, but also keep it slow enough to avoid odors. There are books written about this and mixing the right ratio of Carbon and Nitrogen. If you want to get into the topic that deeply, please check my booklist. However, it boils down to mixing greens and brown, wets and dries, the ying and the yang. As a general rule, keeping these at a 50/50 mix is optimum. More browns will slow the process whereas greens will speed it up (to a point), but it will still work. So don't worry about being meticulous with the mixing, just use it as a target.

So what is a brown? Think dried leaves, plant stems, wood mulch, sawdust, and straw. This is the Carbon that adds the dry matter to keep the pile from becoming a stinking slimy cesspool. The stink and slime is due to decomposition so rapid that it causes fermentation. Essentially, browns are the brakes to slow the process.

Greens are easier to think of, but are not limited by just color. A green would be any moist vegetation (cauliflower, orange peel, tomato waste, potato peelings) and also includes manure. Greens are the accelerator and speed the breakdown to compost.

As an awareness, I do want to mention that different material will have more Carbon or Nitrogen than others. The ideal ratio of C to N is between 25:1 and 30:1. For example, wood chips are 400:1, dried leaves 60:1, and grass clippings 12:1. Again, I'm staying out of this for now and would reference the book list for more information.

What about turning the pile and these expensive tumblers?

Composting is an aerobic (requires oxygen) breakdown of organic material. Over time, the oxygen in the center of the pile is depleted causing the process to slow. Adding oxygen back in to the center allows the pile increases the rate of material breakdown.

There are three typical ways to add oxygen back to the pile. First, insert a drainage pipe into the center of the pile. The downside is it can allow heat to escape, so this works best with a higher amount of greens. Second, use a compost tumbler. The limitation is the batches are small which may not be a downside. Third, is to mix/stir the compost. This is the lowest cost but highest labor.

My recommendation is to use a pile system with periodic mixing for a beginner. One could always purchase a tumbler later if mixing is too much work, but I'm sticking with, "free is good". Piles do benefit from some containment. Wire fencing (especially the 1x2" grid type), pallets tied together, scrap wood constructs, hay/straw bales, and junk tires all work well for a compost pile. Personally I like to use tires with the sidewalls cut out as they can be moved one ring at a time when turning the pile. This is much less work due to better ergonomics. In addition, the tire rings can double as potato planters to increase size and yield, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

I have experimented using a washer and dryer drum for composting. I think a pair of dryer drums could make a decent tumbler if welded together, but the washer drum was just too small to be effective. The washer would make a better planter than anything else.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

We have had way below normal temperatures the last several days, and to be honest, my plants are beginning to freak out. My cilantro is already trying to go to seed, my snow peas are going nuts, and the shell peas just seem confused as to whether or not there is enough time left to make the effort.

Luckily I delayed transplanting my tomatoes and garden cherries as it dropped down to a new record low (for the date) of 37F last night. Not enough to kill them, but a good potential to stunt my little ones. Here's to slightly warmer weather coming soon!

Do stay tuned as I have an exciting project documentation coming up. I believe I have managed to pull together the elusive cheap and durable raised bed border material. This may be new as I have never seen one built this way before nor did I find one in the first several pages of my web searching. Details and pictures soon as long as things stay on the current track.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring is finally here!!!

Spring is in the air and the wonder of rebirth and new growth is just ramping up. What a wonderful time to enjoy the creation!

Our garden this year will be simplified over previous years. The focus is increasing seedstock of expensive items, testing growing techniques, and finding more varieties that thrive in our area. As such, one bed equivalent (4x40') is fully devoted to garlic that was spring planted. Typically garlic will be fall planted to emerge even in freezing conditions the next spring (one volunteer is already 4-5" tall). The garlic will increase an expensive seedstock, and test the growth potential of spring planted garlic. FUN!!!

My daughter and I have also planted a full bed of peas. They are grown in two rows and I will use rebar, recycled water pipe, and recycled fencing for the trellis. Some of the peas will be a bit thick as the "one at a time" lesson is difficult to teach to a two year old. Oh well, the seed was cheap and I had a good laugh about it.

One more bit of excitement is my next door neighbor is digging a garden. It is her first garden ever and she is starting the hard way with just a shovel, but making good progress. Just so you don't think I'm a jerk, I did offer to till, but she declined with the comment that she may change her mind. Always nice to talk with another gardener. I find it's hard NOT to get along with gardeners and those who fish or hunt.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Black Walnut picking time

October in Missouri means it's time to start picking black walnuts! There is nothing quite like the distinctive aroma of walnuts that only gets stronger as the load gets bigger and permates the air at the hulling station. Though seldom a real moneymaker, picking walnuts is a way to get outdoors, spend time with my daughter, and enjoy the cool fall air. Better yet, this annual tradition from the farm transfers easily to the city. There are more landowners to deal with, but some will even pay me to pick up the walnuts.

I bought a "nut wizard" this year to make the job go faster and keep my hands cleaner. I have to say, it works slick as snot!!! For the most part the nuts slip right in the basket. I have nuts pop in that surprise me because I didn't even see them, it works so good. When the basket is full, the nuts will drop right out in a bucket with the supplied wire do-dad. Three to four basket fulls fills a bucket. When I have two buckets full, it is then dumped in my trailer.

The basket appears to be stainless with a quality solid wood handle. The only issues I've had are in tall grass (about eight inches or higher) and the ones with hulls flattened by cars into a disk shape. It will still pick up the hulled nuts, so I kick the disks till the hull falls off. Tall grass is still a hand pick job though. I'm rating this a 9.8 out of 10 on my initial review.

My daughter's favorite part is removing the wire do-dad from the buckets and moving walnuts back and forth between the two buckets. Thankfully, she is a great sport, loves tagging along with dad, stays in sight, and even picks up a couple walnuts now and then.

I'm also attempting a mobile buyer operation. The big downside of selling at the hullers is the wait time is often an hour or two. I don't mind as I bring a book with me to read. However, I imagine there are lots of people who have better things to do with the time, especially if they have a small volume to sell.


I am quite excited the the Springfield city council voted last week to allow chickens inside city limits. I have been researching plans for coops and will be posting pictures of the build when it happens.

I am looking for a design that will allow the chickens access to grass, but allow them to roost in a more secure area to keep away from the neighborhood cats, snakes, and raccoons. I'll also plan to start with pullets to minimize predator worries and wait until next year to start from day olds or eggs. I can't wait to see the look on my daughters face to be around little balls of fluff!

not in vain time used

My wife and I have been struggling for the last several weeks on a decision. Through unexpected events and also errors on my part, it has become no longer feasible to rehab the house where my garden is located and we will attempt to sell it as is. The unfortunate consequence is that I will loose my garden space for a time.

The good news is we have also decided it is in the best interest of the family to move to a location more conducive to critters, gardens, raising children, and peace of mind. Our goal is to locate this slice of heaven by fall of 2011. In the meantime, I will continue to devour any literature I can get, do my market research, attend trade shows (18th National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference is less than a month away!!!), and get any hands on experience I can. Ron Macher and Joel Salatin have been particularly inspirational and I can not recommend their literature highly enough for those aspiring to a sustainable and profitable agricultural enterprise.

It is difficult for me to take this action, however, I realize it is the most expedient path towards getting a chance to pursue my true vision. Bear with me as I enter a pupate stage of ideas and planning to emerge as the butterfly of inspiration!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Seed collecting

As the season gives way to fall, my mind moves toward seed collecting, fall gardening, & winter gardening.

My fall garden is not much to speak of. Due to conflicts of weather and spousal scheduling (neither of which I have much control), the fall garden is currently at "failure to launch". Some days it feels like a conspiracy such a today when my wife can watch our daughter, but it starts pouring down at a quarter after four, just before my office work day ends.

I can talk about a couple seed saving successes.

1. The leek flower that was so pretty earlier has turned to seed. I can see why Alliums (onion family relative) are so popular as they a very pretty from bloom to seed.

2. My fall plated carrots yielded seed this year!!! A biennial, producing seed only in it's second year was tricked to providing seed in under twelve months. These carrots were planted late last September and given only enough time to get a few inches high before winter hit. The ones that survived our -8 degree F unprotected in the soil, grew up this spring to greatly shorten the expected seed to seed time frame.

Watching the seed heads develop definitely reminded me how close the relationship is between cultivated carrots and Queen Anne's Lace.

3. My heirloom lettuce also produced plenty of seed. The plant sends up a stalk with many little flowers per stalk that will dry like tiny dandelions to be carried on the wind.

All three of these examples were pretty straight forward involving drying the seed on the plants before harvest. More to come soon.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Summer Doldrums

Ah the mid summer doldrums. Heat warnings most every day make it impossible to bring the kid along. The mosquitos compound the issue. As such, much of the garden is languishing in disrepair with overgrown weeds, squash vines going EVERYWHERE, and bolting lettuce plants.

The one thing that is progressing is harvest. The tomatoes are coming on full bore and I picked another three grocery sacks full from my nine plants. The bag full picked last week yielded 5 quart jars after processed and canned. I would guess that even after giving some to neighbors, I will have to run the canner twice as I expect there will be 12-15 quarts out of this batch. Oh the soups and chili's we'll have this winter!!!

This weekend it the forecast is slightly cooler. I am hopeful to get a bed and a half read for some fall plants. I already have spinach and turnip and I just ordered beets, a different strain of broccoli, chard, and lacinato kale from High Mowing Organic seed. (I can identify with "High Mowing" as with the rain and heat, the grass I've been mowing has been quite high! ;) )

Happy fall gardening to all y'all! Time to get to it.