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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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Besides feeding your plants and adding water holding capacity, composting is important for two more good sustainable reasons. Composting helps to minimize the trash going to our landfill, but most importantly doesn’t contribute methane to our atmosphere. When we compost, an aerobic condition is created and the bacteria that thrive create a waste product of CO2. Yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, however methane is over 20 times more powerful in contributing to greenhouse gas effects.

Composting in summer’s heat is the fastest, just keep things moist! And there are several ways to do it!

In place composting

Hugelkultur Diagram Cross Section

Long term is Hugelkultur. I say long term because you use logs and branches. Not only are you making compost, but heat! You can plant sooner in spring, grow later in fall. Building up, you get more surface area for planting if space is limited. If space is not an issue and you don’t want raised areas, dig trenches fill with logs, branches, twigs. Cover with the soil you dug up and other stuff. Same excellent results! There are many ways to Hugelkultur! Some projects are gentile and mini, others are huge!

  • The classic is the three log triangle stack and hillock system. Put a bean trellis at the end of the pile!
  • Lay a bed of thick diameter branches, small branches, and twigs at the bottom of your raised bed.
  • Use logs to terrace your slope

Long term might be that pile in the back forty that you pay no attention to, other than dumping on more barrow loads from time to time and letting nature take its course. That can take years. But if your pile is warm in the sun and kept moist, at the bottom of that pile, eventually, not less than a year, you will get some fine leaf mold, and leaf mold is potent!

LASAGNA! Quick and dirty is composting right where you will grow things, and planting all along if you like! it’s the easiest on your back! If you have enough materials, all you do is chop and drop your disease free and seed free weed cuttings and lay your kitchen scraps right on the surface and let them decompose. Throw in some composting worms, red wrigglers. It will all go faster still, and you will have castings right where you need them! Throw some manures (no pet or human waste) about to ramp up the heat and Nitrogen plants need! Some people add other favorite amendments. Yes! Do keep things moist or thick/deep enough for the materials that contract the soil to decompose. To plant immediately, pull a space open, put already made compost in your planting holes and plant instantly! There’s no moving the compost you are making because it’s already where it is needed! There’s no turning, no space taken up by a composter. In summer it also acts as a mulch! Composting and mulch at once!

If you don’t have enough materials, do areas as you can, one at a time, each season another one. Consider giving your neighbors a container, or two, to collect their kitchen trim for you; ask for their landscape waste materials. Hooray, no trips to the dump!

Trenching kitchen scraps or burying garden trim 6″ to 8″ deep is really fast. Soil organisms get right to work! Again, keep that area slightly moist.

Composting in enclosures 

Compost Geobin

Quick might be in a babied system in an enclosure, chopping things into small pieces, deleafing tough stalks, feeding with high class chopped, even blender chopped, kitchen trim! Trim could include squshed eggshells (keeps pH balanced), 0.5%, that’s 1/2 a %, or less of coffee grounds (suppresses fungal rots and wilts!). You could add some compost worms, red wigglers, so their castings are precombined with your compost! Careful layering, alternating WET/Nitrogen – grass, green trim, kitchen trim, and DRY/Carbon – leaves, straw, dried spent plants, makes for a well balanced process. Straw aerates, wets moisten and decompose the straw. 1″ wet to 2″ dry is good, but you get it, it’s 1 wet to 2 dry. Easy.

To Turn or Not to Turn! If you decide to turn, you need either a permanent two enclosure side by side system, or a lightweight movable enclosure. You may need to make your system secure from pests like rats or squirrels.

Turning speeds things up a tad, but research shows unturned compost is a little more nutritious. I use the enclosures you can lift off the pile. The pile doesn’t fall apart, so I move the enclosure to a nearby spot and pitchfork the pile into the new location. When things are well decomposed you will need to use a shovel. The pile goes back and forth every couple of weeks or so, leaving a spot that is enriched from the pile’s drippings, a prime planting spot! Then I move the enclosure to another spot.

Covering your pile with a heavy mil plastic, like old compost bags or trash compactor bags, keeps the pile moist. Water the fresh straw or leaves you add just a bit. Also, covering makes the worms feel safe from birds to come and feed at the top of the pile. When you take the cover off, the worms dive to get out of sight of birds!

6 months is usual, but since I add-as-I-have, part of the pile is ready sooner than the rest. I use the part that is ready; the rest I let keep processing. You can use almost finished compost sooner just fine! Mix it into the soil in the new planting area a couple weeks before planting and Baby, you quickly have tasty soil! The soil organisms ramp up and things are integrated down to the micro dots! However, if your compost pile isn’t going as quickly as you like, get some compost accelerator at your nursery or grow a compost activator plant like yarrow or nutritious comfrey next to your composter for convenient use! Add a few leaves to each layer as available.

Also use your compost for sidedressing. If it is summer, pull back your mulch. Push your spade fork in and carefully rock it back and forth to make some holes around your plant – not too close to the main stem, and as you feel to do. Lay down two to three inches of compost as you have available. Put your mulch back in place. Water slowly and gently to let the compost moisten, melt and drizzle into the holes, feeding the root area of your plants. It’s like giving them compost tea! Give it a few days to take effect. It’s especially effective when your plant starts into production, or as a late summer feed when they are pooping out. It will extend your harvest.

Some gardeners just divide their compost into big piles, make a water holding bowl in the top, and plant directly in the compost for super growth! Works great for a giant tomato plant, plants that are heavy feeders like Goliath-size winter squash, melons, Mammoth cabbage! How many times have you let a compost pile go and come back to find little plants growing in it?! They know what’s good for them! Cover the piles with some light blocking mulch, like thick straw, to keep the pile from washing away. Stick a stake beside your plant so you know right where to water.

HOT or Cold compost There is always the curiosity whether to do cold or hot compost.
  • Hot is faster but more labor intensive, frequent turning a must to keep it going. Layering and balancing your ingredients is critical to get those temps. A thermometer is good to have, ideal temps 141°F to 155°F so weed seeds and disease pathogens die.
  • Cold compost can be as simple as pile and wait. And wait. No concern about the order of things. Nature takes her course.
  • My system is a hybrid system. I layer pretty carefully. My pile gets hot when I first layer in a new batch of stuff, but if I don’t turn it for a few weeks, that’s ok too.

Do what suits your needs or as you have materials, but compost, compost, compost! In these SoCal drought times, compost is the single most thing you can do for your soil to add water holding capacity! Keep your soil healthy and lively, with excellent friability, so it makes the most of what moisture it does receive.

Tyler W at Crazy About Compost, says: Just the other week, I had filled the bin up to the edge with new material…and I look out there today after forgetting about it and it’s dropped nearly a foot! This is what I love about compost piles – I’ve been adding material to this thing on a weekly basis and it’s just a bottomless pit of degradation.

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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!

Read Full Post »

I love Val Webb’s image and she and I both love COMPOST!  She says:  There’s an irresistible alchemy involved when you can start with garbage and end up with a wildly nutrient-rich substance that has been likened to Ghirardelli chocolate for earthworms.

Composting is EASY! Start Now!  Get your soil fat!  The sooner you plant, and plant in tasty soil, the sooner you get a great harvest!

There’s compost and vermicompost, hot and cold compost, compost in place, trenching, to name a few.  You have options!

Compost is decayed organic matter – poops – that’s manures, dry leaves and straw/alfalfa, wet grasses and kitchen wastes. Compost has a variable amount of Nitrogen in it depending on what has been composted and how the compost was made. Some studies show unturned compost has more Nitrogen than turned compost. Homemade compost can be up to 4 N, as is fish emulsion and chicken manure. Steer is 2, horse 1.7. If you need a quick boost for a yellowing N starved plant, go for bat guano, or easily assimilable blood meal, both at 10 N! Be careful with that bat guano, it’s hot and can burn your plants. And both are pricey. Get just the amount you need at Island Seed and Feed’s bulk bins.

Vermicompost is worm poop. Politely, worm castings. Simple as that. Red wriggler worms are easy to raise, will eat lots of things but do best with tender stuff, your green kitchen waste. They love cantaloupe and melon rinds, nesting in avocado shells, egg shells keep their pH neutral. Wrigglers are surface feeders not earthworms. If you put wrigglers in the soil, they die. Worm castings (vermicompost) have negligible N, about .05, are NOT A FERTILIZER, but do a lot of other good things for your plants. Highly recommended.

Hot compost has to be made carefully, have just the right mix, be tended like a baby, and defies many attempts to get it hot! If you don’t get the combo of your materials right, you are cold composting. The advantage of hot composting is it is fast, kills bad creatures and weed seeds. Also kills the good guys. But. Only in the parts of the pile that actually get that hot. The whole pile never gets that hot, like the outside of the pile. Even if you turn it so the outside goes inside, it’s hard to guarantee it will all get that hot, so be advised. It’s pretty cute to see all those little plants that spring up in the pile….

Cold compost is just throwing your done plants or trim, preferably not diseased or pest infested, into a pile or your compost enclosure, layering with some wet or dry material as needed. It might get hot, it likely won’t. It will decompose if you keep it moist. If not you have dead dry stuff, no nutrients.  Some studies have shown that cold compost is more nutritious than hot compost.  Makes sense since you aren’t burning off Nitrogen and other goodies including beneficial insects and microorganisms.  If your stuff doesn’t turn black and fluffy and smell good when it is decomposed to unrecognizable pieces, you don’t have compost. Perhaps you could use it as mulch?

Composting in place, sheet composting, Lasagna Gardening, is a time saver, no moving later. Chop and drop on the spot, add dry/wet materials as needed, amendments, red wrigglers, let nature do the work.  Especially add some chicken manure before you add your layers, because decomposition uses Nitrogen!  If you are starting on top of turf, using cardboard as your bottom layer, be sure to SATURATE the cardboard.  Don’t rush this part.  Really saturate it.  You want it to last long enough for the grass underneath it to die, to keep the grass from growing up through your pile; you also want your cardboard to decompose so your plants’ roots can grow through it when your pile sinks as the pile decomposes.

Trenching kitchen trim is traditional – cover it and forget it! Crushed eggshells, torn tea bags, coffee grounds. Six inches deep is all you need to do. Cover with the soil, water as usual, your stuff will disappear in about a week! Don’t put in meats or oils that attract digging predators, or grains or cereals that will attract mice. Leave out citruses and spicy foods.

Start Now! 10 Easy Steps to Make RICH COMPOST!

Make the most out of your finished plants or trim; use them for compost, organic fertilizer! A compost enclosure is a fine garden investment! Keep it humming! Dig your compost in around your plants, plant IN your new compost! Surface compost Nitrogen just off gases, so put a layer of soil over your compost to keep the Nitrogen right where you need it, in the soil feeding your plants.

1. Get or make your enclosure, a good working size for you, then layer, layer, layer! Half inch layers are ideal, but do what you can.  A pile 3′ by 3′ is your best minimum if you want a hot pile.  Enclosures can be free pallets on Craigs List tied together, plastic beehive types to keep the rats and mice out, the circular hard black rubber kind, to expensive rolling types, garbage cans with bottoms removed, holes made in their sides!  Do what works for you!
2. Dry stuff first so it will get wet from the stuff you put on top.  That’s ‘brown’ – dry ingredients such as dead leaves, wetted newspaper or cardboard, alfalfa/straw.  The formula is 2 dry, brown to 1 wet, ‘green.’
3. Layer up with your kitchen waste you saved, undiseased green waste from your garden or greens recycle bin. Avoid hard woody stems and seeding weed plants. Cut up large items, halve whole items like apples, potatoes. Tear teabags, crush eggshells.
4. Lay in a few yarrow leaves to speed decomposition. Grow yarrow by your composter for handy use.
5. Inoculate with a sprinkle of soil, living micro organisms, that multiply, munch and speed composting.
6. Sprinkle your layers with aged manure (keep a bucketful next to your composter) to enrich it.
7. Keep layering up to 3’ high or until you run out of materials.
8. Keep your composting materials moist, to keep them live and decomposing.  Don’t let them dry out – dry is dead, nothing happens, nutrients are lost, time and space wasted.
9. Cover with a large piece of *folded heavy mil black plastic to keep your compost moist, and dark so any worms that take up residence work up through the whole pile, to the top .
10. Keep adding to it, stir or turn often to oxygenate, weekly if you can.  Composting organisms need lots of air to operate.  Keep it moist but not drippy and drowning.  Some studies show compost is more Nitrogen rich if you DON’T turn it!  Hmm…read on.

If you are not able to do that much heavy turning or don’t want to take the time, simply, push a long stick into your compost, several times, in different places, to let oxygen in.  Or, if you are inclined, at intervals in your pile, as you build it, you can insert, horizontally or vertically, 2″ PVC pipes, that have had holes drilled in them every 6″ for aeration.  If you are going to insert horizontally, make your holes on one side only; put the holes side down to keep them from clogging.  Make sure both ends stick out so there is air flow through the pipes.  If you insert vertically, drill holes all around the pipe.  If you use a larger diameter, line it with wire mesh to keep it from filling with debris.  Once made, you can use your PVC over and over.  Other alternatives are to make wire mesh cylinders or tie a bundle of twigs together.

Your compost is finished when you no longer recognize the individual materials that went into it. If you are have a small compost batch, when ready, lay out your *folded plastic cover, pitchfork the still decomposing stuff on top of your pile onto your plastic.  Use that good stuff at the bottom where you want it. Or plant in the nutrient rich spot where your composter was!  Put your composter in a new spot, fork the stuff still decomposing back in, add new materials, recover, do it again!  The process slows down in winter, speeds up in summer, generally you have some compost in 6 to 8 weeks.

If you have time, throw a cup or so of compost in a bucket, fill with water, let sit overnight, voila, compost tea! Soak your seeds in it before planting!  Pour it round your plants or use your watering can to spray it on their leaves, both tops and bottoms – foliar feeding.  Your veggies will thrive!  If you have a lawn, make aeration holes with your spade fork and pour the tea down them.  You soil will start to live again!

Your soil and your plants thank you!

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I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal mulch* thinking to match the plant! Same goes for composting in place. That’s a good idea for some areas of your garden, other areas not at all!

If you are coastal SoCal, in the marine layer zone, your mulch, or composting in place, may be slowing things down a lot more than you realize. The best melons I’ve ever seen grown at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot!  It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground, clean, above soil level insects.

For more heat, put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Permeable shrubs are the most effective wind barriers. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are Mediterranean heat lovers! Okra is Southern, hot.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi, no more than an inch of loose straw to allow airflow at soil level but keep heat down. Let ‘em dry nearby; water a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Drier soil is not comfy for slugs.

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots. Preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles when your cukes bloom. The radish will provide a living mulch as their leaves shade the cuke roots. Eat a few radish, but let the rest grow out to keep repelling the beetles. In time you can gather their seeds. Plant heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. Slugs and snails like peas and lettuce. You will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it.

Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. In drought areas, plant in basins below the main soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant. Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves anyway. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding the basin, but you will need to keep the basin from filling in. Plant companion littles and fillers in the basin around the base of bigger plants. They will enjoy the cooler damper soil and provide living mulch to keep that soil more cool!

LIVING MULCH  is triple productive! It mulches, provides companion plant advantages, and is a crop all at the same time! Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and bigger companion plants you plant them by. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. Cucumbers under broccoli are living mulch while the brocs repel cucumber beetles! If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. They, cucumbers and strawberries, also have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch.

Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can feed their vine up through the largest tomato cages, cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! Especially preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles! All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

Cooler crops, over summering Broccoli, Kale, Chard like moist and cooler, so mulch deeply very early in spring.

Pallet Garden Strawberries Boards as MulchBoards as mulch! Your strawberries like slightly acidic soil, and acidic mulch – redwood or pine needles. Also, you can lay down boards between mini rows of strawberries to keep the soil moist under the boards, the soil between the rows that the berry roots have access to. It’s a variation on pallet gardening. The advantages of using boards are you can space or remove your boards so you can easily access the soil to add amendments, you can add or remove boards to make a bigger or smaller patch, you can make the boards the length you need or want, space them as needed per the plant. Planting between boards can be used for lots of other plants too if you won’t be planting an understory! As for your strawberries, as they leaf out and get bigger, in addition to the boards, they will be living mulch for themselves!

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Besides wanting to cool your soil, keep moisture in, prevent erosion, keep your crop off the soil and away from bugs, and in the long-term, feed your soil, mulching is also to prevent light germinating weed seeds from sprouting. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum, tomatoes being the exception. Less than that may be pretty, but simply make great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, balanced, doing great!

Mulching is double good on slopes and hillsides. Make rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walk ways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Be sure to anchor your mulch in windy areas -biodegradable anchor stakes are available.  has some clever ideas on how to keep your mulch on a slope. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the sunny side under them, on the uphill side of your berms. Make your terrace wide enough so you don’t degrade the berms by walking on them when you harvest.

If you mulch, make it count!  Mulch with an organic degradable mulch. Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries or blueberries.

COMPOSTING IN PLACE  Build soil right where you need it. Tuck green kitchen waste out of sight under your mulch, where you will plant next. Sprinkle with a little soil if you have some to spare, that inoculates your pile with soil organisms; pour on some compost tea to add some more! Throw on some red wriggler surface feeder worms. Grow yarrow or Russian comfrey (Syphytum x uplandicum) near your compost area so you can conveniently add a few sprigs to your pile to speed decomposition. It will compost quickly, no smells, feeding your soil excellently! If you keep doing it in one place, a nice raised bed will be built there with little effort!

Mulch Straw Plant Now!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, your favorite plant specific amendments. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots (exception is Brassicas), and plant! Yes!

*Mulch is when you can see distinct pieces of the original materials. Finished compost is when there are no distinct pieces left, the material is black and fluffy and smells good.

Mulch is magic when done right!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer 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!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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February! SOIL & SEED Month!

Please see February 2010 for tips on aphids/white flies, slugs/snails, gophers, soil, seed starting basics! 

When there are warm days, it is ever so tempting to plant up summer veggies!  Don’t do it.  Not yet.  Start seeds. 

Depending on how much space you have, plant a last round of your very favorite winter crops – lettuces, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, kale, kohlrabi, potatoes, radishes, turnips.  Bare-root asparagus and artichokes.  I forgot to tell you last month, you could start zucchini!  At Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden we had an elder gardener who always started his in January, early February, and had great zucchini way before everyone else!  Other than zuchs, really look at those days to maturity, and add the number of days you expect for harvest duration.  If you plant a long maturing plant that would be harvested for some time, think if you would rather have that space for an early round of a summer veggie you love more.  Choose mildew and disease resistant varieties for your late peas.  

Keep sidedressing your producing plants, protect your tasty lettuces from slugs and snails.  Keep watch for aphids, and, if you disturb your plant and a little cloud of white things fly off, you have white flies.  Spray those little buggers off asap so they don’t spread to your other plants or someone else’s!  Keep up with your harvesting.  Wait until it warms up some more to prune frost damaged plants.  Even wait until next month to fertilize.  

But do prepare your soil for March summer veggie planting.  Dig if you must – I’m a no-dig, no weed person who leaves the living soil structure intact [see Gaia’s Garden, 2nd edition, chapter on soil].  Instead, prepare your soil by layering good stuff on top, called Lasagna Gardening, sheet composting, composting in place, or on-the-ground composting!  Garden smart!  If it is already there, you don’t have to move it from the compost pile to where it is needed!  Build your soil in place or in your new raised beds!  If you are putting raised beds on top of your lawn, lay down several layers of heavy cardboard first, to stop the grass and weeds, thoroughly soak it, then layer, layer, layer!  When they get there, your plant’s roots will easily poke their way through the cardboard.  Definitely attach gopher proof wire mesh to the bottom of your raised bed frame before you start filling it, unless you are creating your garden on top of concrete or a roof.  If you are container gardening, check out Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces: A Layering System for Big Results in Small Gardens and Containers: Garden in Inches, Not Acres. 

Healthy layering should be 2 dry/Carbon to 1 wet/Nitrogen. 

Carbon – carbon-rich matter (like branches, stems, dried leaves, peels, bits of wood, bark dust or sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters, conifer needles, egg shells, hay, peat moss, wood ash) gives compost its light, fluffy body.
Nitrogen – nitrogen or protein-rich matter (manures, food scraps, leafy materials like lawn clippings and green leaves) provides raw materials for making enzymes. 

  • Lay twigs or straw first, a few inches deep. This aids drainage and helps aerate the pile.
  • ADD dry materials – straw, leaves and wood ashes. If you have wood ashes, sprinkle in thin layers, or they will clump together and be slow to break down.  Fine chopped, smaller materials decompose faster.
  • Lay on manure, green manure ( clover, buckwheat, wheatgrass ) or any nitrogen source. This activates the compost pile and speeds the process along.  Put on rinsed seaweed for minerals, scatter some yarrow sprigs to further speed decomposition, and, of course, your kitchen food waste. 
  • Think how that pile is going to decompose lower and lower.  Build enough layers to get the amount of soil you need.  Could be 18” high.
  • If you like, sprinkle some microbe rich topsoil over it all to ‘inoculate’ with living soil organisms that will immediately go to work.  Add a few handfuls of red wriggler compost worms.  Add any other amendments that make you happy.
  • Install some pathways.  Don’t walk on your oxygen rich breathing brew and squeeze the life out of it, or crush your worms and soil structure!  Keep things fluffy for good soil aeration and water absorption.   
  • If you need to, for aesthetic reasons, cover the compost with a pretty mulch that will break down slowly.  Spread it aside when you are ready to plant.  It could be down leaves; if you need your soil in that area to be slightly acidic, cover with pine needles (strawberries).
  • If things get stinky, add more carbon.
  • You want to plant NOW, or the same day you layer?  Can do!  Or your instant soil wasn’t so instant?  OK, here’s the instant remedy.  Make planting holes in your layers, put in some compost you purchased or have on hand, mycorrhizal fungi, and plant!  The rest will catch up, and the heat from the composting material underneath will warm your plants!  You WILL have a fine garden!  

If you do also need a traditional compost pile for spot needs, consider “No-turn” composting!  The biggest chore with composting is turning the pile from time to time. However, with ‘no-turn composting’, your compost can be aerated without turning.  The secret is to thoroughly mix in enough coarse material, like straw – little air tubes, when building the pile. The compost will develop as fast as if it were turned regularly, and studies show that the nitrogen level may be even higher than turned compost.  With ‘no-turn’ composting, add new materials to the top of the pile, and harvest fresh compost from the bottom of the bin.

So here are 3 ways to save garden time and your back!  1)  No digging!  2)  Compost in place, no moving it.  3) No compost turning!  Uh huh.

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Now, let’s look at July in more detail:  Definitely time to be gathering info about fall plant varieties, getting your seeds for August planting!  As plants finish, spaces become available, get that soil ready with compost and manures.  Get some hardware cloth and install some gopher barriers. 

Wise Harvesting!  Now that the initial rush of harvesting your new veggies has passed, and it has, at times, become a labor, it is not the time to slack off!  Harvest frequently to keep your crop coming!  Do not store on the vine.  Pick zuchs and cucs small and tender. 

Maintenance practices make a difference!  See June’s info for more details! 

  • Water & mulch.  Mulch for moisture, water deeply and less frequently.  Stick your fingers in the soil to see how moist it is.  Keep strawberries moist or they will stop producing.  Water short rooted plants, beans, lettuces, cucs, more frequently.  Keep seed beds moist, water twice a day if you need to.
  • Feeding!  Epsom salts your peppers, blood meal for yellowing Nitrogen needing plants.  Scratch in a little manure to keep lettuces fat and happy.  Seabird guano (NOT bat guano) keeps plants flowering and producing!
  • Pollinators!  That’s bats, bees, beetles, birds, butterflies, moths, and wind.  The creatures need year round food, shelter and clean water.  Selecting Plants for Pollinators – California Coastal Chaparral Forest and Shrub Province is a must see article!
  • Pests – insects and skunk prevention, gopher management.
  • Diseases – pick before you water, so you don’t spread disease.  Water in the AM to let leaves dry off to keep mildew at bay. 

Make compost, compost, compost now for fall planting!  Use trimmings, spent plants, plants that bolt, healthy but no longer wanted, in your compost!  In August we will start planting fall and winter crops, and they will be wanting your fine organic compost!  Chop things up so they degrade more quickly.  Keep your pile moist so it will decay.  A dry pile is a dead pile.  Add some red worms to the pile so you will get some worm castings as well, and your pile breaks down more fully.  Bring your kitchen trim!  Add a few sprigs of yarrow from time to time and that will speed decomposition.   

Instead of leaving the big air holes open in the rubber compost enclosures, you might decide to install a very large heavy mill plastic bag to keep your pile moist!  Put a few holes in the bottom for drainage.  When enough compost has formed, you can just remove the bag to a storage area out of the sun, or empty it where you want to plant next, incorporating it with the soil there.  Or if you don’t use a bag, just remove the enclosure and plant right there, right in your compost!

Bountiful Storage!  Freezing, canning, seed collecting, making medicinal products like creams and shampoos, teas, powdered herbs, candles, flavored oils & vinegars, or drying flowers, are all wonderful ways to extend the joy of what you grew, whether you keep them or give them as gifts!

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If you didn’t mulch, didn’t mulch thick enough, or your mulch is thin and tired, now’s the time to put some down! It keeps your soil cooler, reduces evaporation, you use less water. Mulch prevents light germinating seeds from growing, using up soil nutrients and your soil.      

Big weeds – if healthy with no pests, chop and drop – that can also include your spent big plants, tops that have bolted, ones you no longer want. Toss the heavy stems into your long-term compost or green waste disposal. Chop and drop practice makes perfect pure guaranteed organic mulch. Remember, you won’t be doing chop and drop with Brassicas that have poisons that kill small seeds like lettuce seeds.      

Little weeds – get ‘em before they seed. If you see flowers, no matter how cute, pretty, and tiny, tiny seeds are very soon to follow. Every one of those is a new little weed that will need weeding, eats up your time weeding, again, and soil. Grass, with that pretty little plume? Those are flowering, seeding. The wind will blow them about. DO NOT pull and lay them on your soil to regrow right there. Remove them, not even into your compost pile, especially if you are not doing hot compost. Even then, it’s not likely every part of your compost pile will get hot enough to kill those little survivor seeds.      

Pigweed, Lamb's Quarter - Chenopodium, Nutrient Accumulator

When you pull little weeds, and you want to use them for mulch, leave them with their roots up, not down where they may grab what soil they can and grow again. One way to instant ‘weed’ tiny weeds in soft soil, is to use a knife, thin blade or stick, and poke/cut them down, push them into your soil. Instant mulch! Works better than raking or hoeing because that dries out your soil, and exposes more light germinating seeds so they can grow too, more weeding.      

Good weedsGardeners, we can reduce or eliminate fertilizer costs and improve soil naturally with plants that are “dynamic, or nutrient, accumulators.” Often they have long tap roots that gather nutrients deep in our soil and make them available to other plants. Some are very nutritious!  You can steam them or eat tasty young tender leaves in salads!      

Pigweed/lamb’s quarters, comfrey, dandelion, garlic, yarrow (also helps heat, decompose your compost more quickly!), fennel, purslane, buckwheat, parsley, peppermint, chamomile, stinging nettle, thistle, vetch, plantains, are all nutrient accumulators! Yes, several of those are ‘weeds,’ but now you will never think of them quite the same way again!

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