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Veggies growing in homemade compost!

Veggies growing in homemade compost! Photo by Rod Zimmer

Compost is the single most best thing you can do for your soil! It feeds your plants, adds water holding capacity, and much more! 

Anytime we have a season change, compost becomes more important. In summer most of us are thinking how can I do it all?! Harvesting takes more time than waiting for the plants to produce. There’s more watering to do in summer. Yet, fall is soon upon us and though making compost takes a wee bit more time, it is so needed to give our plants a good start! In winter, making compost is essential for spring planting!

Here are some possibilities!

There are 3 basic kinds of compost, cold and hot and composting in place.

Of the cold kind….

The kind that finishes the quickest is the kitchen veggie waste that gets chopped vigorously with the shovel every few days, turned and turned again. Small bits decompose faster. The pile is kept moist. The dry brown material in the pile isn’t usually  straw. Straw is hard to chop and takes a long time to decompose. It’s more like leaves, some already chopped, partially decomposed mulch type stuff. The right leaves have nutrient value. See more. With only a couple of turns, this whole process might take two weeks, usually less – even in cooler weather! It’s quick. For quick results it’s also best to put your compost in full sun. Shaded compost usually ends up untened. It’s in an out-of-the-way place, processes so slowly a lot of gardeners forget they ever made the pile. Neglected, the pile literally dies.

In a community garden or a small garden area you might not have space for such a pile. But if it’s a priority you probably will make the space! If you do, and if you want to keep it a bit contained, instead, make a shallow pit and put your ‘pile’ in there. Toss a thin layer of healthy soil over it and turn that in to inoculate your compost with soil organisms. They will speed the decomposition process. A thin layer of soil also keeps flies away and you have no smell. Cover it with a light layer of straw or plastic to keep it from being unsightly to visitors while it is in process. A wire cover over straw lets rain in, so I use a couple plastic bags left from manure. I put a light weight board over my cover and a concrete stepping stone on the board to keep it from blowing away. If it rains, the cover keeps your processing compost from getting too wet. If it’s dry weather, covering keeps it moist. It will decompose better rather than off gas the Nitrogen, dry and die. The cover is instantaneous to remove, then you can have at that pile with gusto! With that kind of pile, you have a fairly steady supply of compost. Most of the time some of it is ready to put here and there.

I am very grateful to three neighbors who give me their green kitchen waste. Since I also grow worms, I ask them to give me only what they imagine a worm could eat. Worms!

Compost Sifting‘Every day I fill the wheelbarrow with rich screened compost. It really smells quite delicious; nutty with a spicy note.’ Sifting your compost is a piece of cake! Grab your wheelbarrow or bucket, get a piece of hardware cloth/hogwire or a nursery plant flat with a smaller weave to it, like in the image, and sift away! You can build a lovely framed sifter or buy great rolling devices. Choose the size opening you want. Or, don’t sift at all. I like a little texture to my compost. 

Have your compost pile handy, nearby, warm in the sun for speedy decomposition! Keep it moist, cover it when it needs it – in hot/dry or rainy weather, turn it! Compost that gets turned regularly often gets raided before it’s completely finished. You can still make out some of what the stuff is that’s there. That works just fine because it finishes quickly, in the ground, at home with all the lovely soil organisms.

If there comes a time when you compost has been sadly neglected, spread the stuff out as a mulch and start over, or let it go and just buy what you need. No shame in that.

Hot Compost is PDF, pretty darn fast!

It can heat up to amazing temps, so hot it makes ash and you cannot put your hands in it without getting burned. You can see it steaming on a winter morning! The point is to kill diseases, pests, weed seeds. Well that almost gets done, because, you see, the heat is in the middle of the pile. So they say turn it so the hot part goes to the outside and the cool part to the inside. That, my friends, is easier said than done. But, at least some of it happens.

Two interesting points here. My cold compost pile gets that hot! Yep, it does. A well-built pile with thin layers will cook quite happily no matter your intention. It’s nature. The other thing is I don’t put diseased plants or seeding weeds in my pile, so I don’t need it to get hot. Sure, some pest eggs probably make it. However, what happens most is veggie seeds sprout when I put the compost in to amend my soil! I swear, I can’t see those seeds when it is compost. It all looks dark and yummy. But lots of times I’m glad that happens! The plants get a terrific start and I get surprises! This year I enjoyed two elegant celery plants that came up about a foot and a half from each other and everyone complimented how beautiful they were, robust, with gorgeous long dark green stalks!

Whether you do hot or cold compost is your choice. I’ve tried it both ways. Sincerely. Got a long thermometer, built cubic yard piles and turned them. Now I have cold compost and turn it. No way around that turning if you want results sooner than later. It doesn’t matter what size I build it. I’ve seen 1 cubic foot piles heat up just fine! If it gets hot, it’s hot. If it doesn’t that’s fine with me. Taking care of it, turning, keeping it moist, making thin layers gets the job done. The layers are more a measuring device – 1 dry to 2 wet. Once they are in, mix up the material so the straw is moistened and the wet just doesn’t make a mass. My friend who chops and turns his with vigor gets much faster results, and I may take that up too.

Composting in place

No dig composting in place is an age old technique more recently called Lasagna Gardening. It takes some prep time, that is often done with a group of friends, but once that is done, you’re home free! There’s no turning, no carrying finished compost about because it is already where you want it! Materials may take longer to decompose. It is a cold pile, but if your pile is directly on the earth, soil organisms happily munching makes things happen quickly. It takes a lot of materials to start depending on the size you want your garden to be. You can start with a small area, add more later.

The beauty is it can be done on top of a lawn to form a raised bed, with or without a box border. If you have lawn where you want to plant, peel back the lawn or not, lay down cardboard or newspaper to kill off the lawn, prevent it growing back, up into your bed. If you choose cardboard, water a LOT to soak that cardboard. Layer to your heart’s content until you run out of materials. You can make beds 18″ high to start. They will settle a lot. That 18″ can easily become 9″ in two or three days in warm weather! You can plant instantly! Just pull back a planting hole, add some ready or nursery-bought compost and any other amendments right for your plant, and plant! Your amazing ‘lasagna’ will decompose and make beautiful soil without you doing a thing more! Add more materials as you acquire them to any spots you want to build up or if you want more compost or a bigger or another bed!

If you are doing composting in place while gardening, you just put on the layers, between the plants or down a row, with the materials you have on hand until you run out. The smaller the chop, the pieces, the faster the decomp. Keep them moist so they will decompose faster.

Trench it and forget it! Trenching has always been the simplest technique of all! It’s a super simple way of putting chopped veggie kitchen wastes to work. Dig, pull back a 6″ trench, no deeper. Soil organisms live at the top. Put your kitchen waste in the trench, grab the shovel and vigorously chop the waste into fine pieces. If you don’t feel like chopping it, don’t! Put in the stuff, cover with some of the soil you pulled back. Turn that a couple times to mix in soil organisms to speed the decomp process, cover with the remaining soil and forget it. Period. Done. A week later you can dig in that area and find no trace of it. Soil organisms are intelligent and born hungry.

I combine trenching and a pit. If I have a spot needing compost, I trench it there. If there are no spots needing it right now, I put it in the pit and hold it until a spot needs it or a plant needs sidedressing (feeding mid season). In that case, in summer I also at a bit of manure or if it’s SoCal winter time, a little fish emulsion for easy and quick uptake.

NOTE! Compost you make isn’t the same as manure, nor nursery bought bagged compost. When you trench, you can add those at the same time if you wish. Manure is good ole down home stinky poopy stuff high in Nitrogen. You can also plant cover crops, living mulch, green manure for Nitrogen. You plant different areas to restore your soil, or in SoCal winter to make good soil for spring planting. Your soil also needs water holding capacity from bulk – what is called forest materials in nursery compost bags. Bagged nursery compost is fluffy. Air space. Your soil needs that too. Kitchen waste compost doesn’t have that. I buy bags of nursery compost – bulk and chicken manure – Nitrogen, as well and add them, sometimes to an area, definitely to my planting holes. Plants uptake a lot of their nutrition from tiny lateral feeder roots that often grow beyond the dripline of your plant, so if you can, do a whole area. Add special amendments to your planting hole. Make that planting hole a bit larger than you have been doing? Sometimes it depends on your budget how much materials you have available. Planting cover crops is cheaper, but it takes longer…

If you have massive amounts of stuff to compost, the fastest way of all, record time, is to use maggots! Cities use them and sell the compost! See all about it!

Hugelkultur Sepp Holzer Diagram Cross Section

Hugelkultur is a long term choice. Hugelkultur, hill mound, is the quintessential sustainable variation of ‘composting’ in place. It can be above and/or below ground and takes a lot more energy to start but what a payoff! Get some big logs, branches. If you are doing it above ground, lay two logs closely side by side, put a lot of bigger to smaller branches between them, then go for it! Woods that work best are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout). Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wiggler casting worms if you have them. As possible add your materials in thin 1/2 to 1″ layers, dry, wet, dry, wet until the area is filled. Lay a third log on top of them and if you have sod you peeled up, lay it on top of the whole pile upside down and do it again! Top the turf with grass clippings, seaweed, compost, aged manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc. Top that with soil and plant your veggies! If you did it right, you end up with a steep sided tall pyramid pile and veggies planted at easy picking heights. See a LOT more and example variations at permaculture, practical solutions for self-reliance.

Raised bed Hugelkultur Lasagna Combo Buckman StyleIf you are starting a raised Hugelkultur bed, dig down about a foot or more, lay in the big logs, big branches around them, smaller branches on top, layer as above to the height you want, allowing for settling. The difference is that this is a flat top raised bed. You can also dig deeper and make the top of the bed flush with your soil! Also, you can do terracing with a Hugelkultur substructure.

Container gardeners you can do your own mini Hugelkultur version as well. A 1/2 beer barrel, a five gallon can, kid’s swimming pool, whatever you have, can be repurposed! Just be sure there are drainage holes. Double purpose your container by making it a self-watering system as well!

Hugelkultur is an excellent long term sustainable choice!

~ The heat from decomposition gives your plants a terrific early start or extends your growing season. You do need to be careful of freezes if you live in a cold area.
~ The right hardwood logs will give your plants steady nutrition for 20 or more years!
~ If you do the above ground version, you have more planting space because it is tall and vertical!
~ Nearby fruit trees are also fed.
~ The logs and branches soak up water and hold it, so less water to none is needed after the first year.

More clever tips!

  1. At intervals, near the center of your compost pile, place handfuls of old compost or fresh rich soil, as an infusion, an inoculant of soil making organisms.
  2. In dry SoCal, I cover my compost pile to keep it from drying out, and I never need to water it.
  3. When cold composting and composting in place, add red wriggler worms to chomp up materials. They add worm castings that help your plants’ immune systems and uptake of nutrients. If you will be turning the compost, kindly use a pitchfork so there will be the least damage to your worms.
  4. Be smart, add herbs! Penny Woodward says: ‘Regular handfuls of chamomile, dandelion and yarrow leaves and flowers will all speed up decomposition of the compost with YARROW being the most effective. Yarrow also adds copper, nitrates, phosphates and potash while chamomile adds calcium and ‘sweetens’ the mixture. Dandelions contribute copper, iron and potash. Nettles are problem weeds but they actually improve the quality of the soil they are growing in and when added to the compost they contribute iron and nitrogen. Tansy adds potassium, which is very important for plant growth while Valerian increases the phosphorus content so essential for good flowers and fruits [but is invasive!]. The most nutritious compost plant is COMFREY and it grows most of the year in SoCal coastal climate. The leaves are rich in potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphates. I keep a clump growing next to the compost. It grows like crazy, and I layer on a handful of leaves whenever I throw in kitchen scraps.
Stemilt's World Famous compost!

Fine finished Stemilt World’s Famous Compost!

Mix it up! Do any version or combo of compost versions that work for you or as you have the materials available to do what you want! Do more than one method at the same time! Super soil is the Number 1 thing you can do for your garden and compost makes the difference! When your compost smells great and you could just about eat it, you know you made it right!

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All that said, there are tons of composting devices available. Some work more or less, some work for one person but not another, for various reasons. Google for pros and cons of each one before you purchase. See if you think you will tend it as it needs to be tended, if it suits your needs, your location. Will you need additional tools. Imagine doing the process it requires. Would that really work for you. Worst is you buy and it fails. You can resell it, give it to someone who would be dedicated to the process it needs, donate it to a charity sale, or an organization that needs one. It’s ok.

All that said, if building your own compost isn’t your choice, support your local nursery and get the best from them! Otherwise, have a good dirty time of it!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. We are very coastal, during late spring/summer in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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