Sunday, April 21, 2019

Better Soil 1.0

Compost is Key

I cannot stress the importance of good quality compost enough in the soil building journey.  I have been studying and practicing gardening for a number of years now, and I have to say the single biggest game changer as far as success in my gardens, has to have been compost.  Two things I want to focus on in this post is where to find it (good quality at good prices) and how to make it. 

One of the best sources of compost, especially early on when you are setting up your gardens, is what is commonly called municipal compost. Across the country, waste management facilities are collecting your yard debris, grass clippings, fall leaves, etc. and turning them into a beautiful compost.  Around here I can get a whole yard of this compost for $15 or so, dropped in the back of my truck or small trailer. Way, way cheaper than buying by the bag at a big box store. If you are just starting out or have a need for a big addition of compost, this is a great option. My grandparents actually grow an amazing garden in raised beds and this is all they fill their boxes with.  

I took the pictures below on a visit to the Idaho Botanical Gardens in Boise Idaho. In that city you can pull up and get this amazing compost for free! There are limits on how much you can have, and you can only use hand tools to gather it....but its FREE!!! If I would have had a bucket I would have grabbed five gallons for myself.

One word of caution. These composts are sometimes "hot" and while some plants won't mind, others will show some initial strain. If you have the space, you could let this compost sit in a pile, covered with a tarp maybe, to "age" in order to get the whole thing fully broken down. You could also use it heavily in the fall, so it has the whole winter to mellow before planting the following spring. I have personally never experienced an issue with this compost in the garden, but I am often using it as part of a mixture of things or a lasagna bed, so it isn't the sole growing media for my plants, and maybe that has been part of my success.

If you garden is small enough, you can also buy some version of compost by the bag at big box stores like Home Depot or your local hardware store. These products are often labeled as garden soil. We usually pick up a few bags of this type of stuff in the spring when they put it on sale crazy cheap. Its useful for small projects and stores easily. I like to use it when I decide to fill some large pots in the garden to grow mint in or something else that I think will do good in a pot. If you're patio gardening this may be a good way to go. We also get a bit of potting soil each year, which is slightly different as it has some added ingredients, most notably perlite, which is added to help with drainage.

Make your own Compost

Making your own compost at home is a skill that I think every gardener should learn early on. Its really not all that difficult and its such a great way to return resources back to your soil.

Imagine a forest for a second if you will. Tree's grow, leaves fall, snow comes maybe and it starts all over again the next year right? Where did those fallen leaves go? Back into the soil. In nature nothing is wasted. Everything that grows, returns to the soil eventually, and is recycled in a continual loop. It's amazingly perfect.

But what do we do? We grow our gardens, take away all the stuff that is good to eat, and then tear everything out in the fall to "clean up" the garden. There are good reasons for this in some cases. Elimination of overwintering pest comes to mind, or diseased plants.... but we are removing a boat load of nutrients and organic material. And what do we do with it? Most people do one of two things generally. They either burn it if they can, or throw it in the trash to be hauled away. Then next year they are forced to import fertilizers, mulches, and other resources to revive the soil. Seems a bit crazy when you think about it right?

Composting breaks this depletion cycle and returns us to a system of regeneration. Things grown in our gardens don't ever leave, even the weed get to stay, and return their fertility to the soil. Not only that, but we start importing other material, like coffee grounds, fruit peels, shredded paper and cardboard, etc. that ADD to the organic matter we are returning to our soil. Instead of sending it off to the dump, we turn our junk mail into tomatoes and melons. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

Lets take a look at how to make this amazing process start happening for you. There is really nothing to it. I am going to preface all this with a disclaimer that you should by all means look for more information on this topic. There is tons of it available online. I find that I enjoy comparing the message from different folks, and then come to my own conclusions about what works best for me. You will be amazed by what you find people doing with compost once you start looking. It can even heat your greenhouse or give you a hot shower if you are so inclined.

You only need two things really to get started and the rest will happen on its own, and that is a carbon source (often called "Browns") and a nitrogen source (often called "Greens"). Once you get the right mixture of these two things, (about three parts brown to one part green is a good general starting point) in a large enough volume, compost just happens.

Carbon Sources (Brown Material)

Carbon is a critically important part of both healthy soil, and a healthy compost pile. Without it, your pile will turn into a stinky, smelly mess. As I mentioned before three parts carbon to one part nitrogen is what I seem to recall being the recommendation, but honestly, I don't worry about it. I just know that I need to have it in the piles, and that I need a good deal of it, so I collect it whenever I can and add it to my piles in often.

Good sources of carbon are things like news paper, junk mail, dry fall leaves, straw, sawdust, and cardboard. These are all "dead" plant material and they are composed mostly of carbon. You want to make sure you have access to them throughout the year. I keep bags of shredded paper around all the time, and even have a paper shredded in the shed if I find myself running short. We learned recently that a really good wood chipper will destroy cardboard and even lumber scraps for additional carbon resources. Animal bedding would be another great source and it comes loaded with some great great green material in the form of whatever droppings were left by the animal living in it. Also, please note that native soil is considered brown, and I always make sure that I put some soil into the pile periodically just for good measure. Usually this is attached to the root balls of sod or other plants removed from the yard.

Green Materials

Green materials seem a bit easier to come by for most people starting out with composting. Weeds grow every year and if you get them before they go to seed, this fresh growing, live material is considered green. It, like all other green material is high in nitrogen. Other examples include grass clippings, animal manure (Herbivores only), fruit and veggie peels, and coffee grounds.

I find that through out most of the year, greens are in plentiful supply. Its only in the winter that it gets a bit harder to find this material, but I am generally not composting as heavily during this time anyway.

One trick I have seen, but have yet to try, is freezing the scraps bound for your piles. Nobody wants to smell a bucket of compost stuff on the counter or under the sink. And if you pile it up out the back door or something, its just going to attract flies if you area is anything like ours. But if you put it in the freezer, there is no smell, no bugs, and you can just keep adding to the same large container until its full and make one trip to the compost pile. I really want to try this to be honest with you.

Another added benefit of this method is the rupturing of the cell walls in all that plant matter. Water expands when it freezes. This action literally explodes the cells from inside out in some plants, and then when they defrost, the resulting product is slightly broken down physically. For some plants this is a great way to start the composting process off even before those scraps hit the pile.

Pile it Up

They call them compost piles for a reason.  You need a decent volume of material in order for this process to really take off.  I like to use pallets to create a bin that gives me an idea of the size I am looking for.  I just keep adding more and more stuff to the bin as it becomes available.  If I have a big deposit of green material, I will be sure to add some soil and shredded paper, maybe cardboard or old, dry leaves, along with some water to keep everything moist. 

When the piles starts to get large enough, you will begin to see some heating within you pile.  That is a good sign that things are beginning to break down.  You may notice steam coming from your pile early in the cool of the morning.  If it is actively composting it can be very, very hot inside..... like over 100 degrees hot.  You can measure this using a compost thermometer like the one shown in the picture here.  They are very long so you can check the temperature at or near the center of a large pile to get a sense of whats going on in there. 

You can help the process along by turning the pile periodically.  This introduces some important oxygen into the pile, and allows for the mixing of material.  Many folks recommend moving the material from the outside of the pile to the inside so they can experience the intensity of the interior of a good pile and begin breaking down. Also good to add a little water when you turn as well to maintain good moisture.  

That is really all there is to it.  After two or three turns, depending upon the size of your original materials, you will either have some really great compost, or some really great chunky compost.  The larger bits do take longer to break down.  What I generally do is shift the compost through something like a milk crate to removed the really large pieces and add them back to the next compost pile.  You can add some hardware cloth to the inside of the crate the vary the size of material that you shift out.  

Once you are done, you will be left with one of the most amazing soil amendments.  There are tons of ways you can use this, which I will get into in another post.  Generally I just layer this stuff on top of my growing beds and let the worms do all the hard work of mixing it down into the soil for me. 

Take it from me.  This is a resource you won't be sorry you have.  You plants and garden in general will love this stuff, and you will be on your way towards one of the most important jobs gardeners have, and that's growing healthy living soil.  

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