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Compost and Organic Gardening

Post in 'The Green Room' started by Eric Johnson, Jun 24, 2008.

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  1. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    Organic gardeners know the value of compost: it's the engine that drives the organic garden.

    I have three compost bins, which I've used for more than 15 years. However, over the past couple of years (since I got a bagging mower), I've been building a regular compost pile out in back of the wood pile, and have discovered that it's less work than the bins and yields a large amount of the essential ingredient--organic matter in various stages of decomposition.

    Actually, the pay dirt, if you will, is located at the bottom of the pile, so you have to excavate it out of there every year. This involves basically moving everything that sits on top of the good stuff into a new location, where it will form the basis for next year's mulch. In this pic, the good compost is down at the bottom of the pile--the dark area behind the shovel head. Note that I sift everything through an old steel milk crate lined with chicken wire to get compost of even consistency. Anything that won't go through the wire (black walnuts, avacado pits, clam shells, small sticks, stones [ I know], etc.) gets thrown back onto the pile for more time to decay. The usable compost is mostly a decomposed mixture of grass clippings, raked leaves and pine needles, kitchen scraps, weeds and other dead plants from the garden and yard.

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  2. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    I use sifted compost for dressing plants, shown here with some hot peppers. In the fall or spring, depending on my energy level and time, I coat all the beds in the garden with about 4 inches of unsifted compost, which gets turned over with a shovel for the next gardening season. This builds the soil up with organic matter and nutrients, making supplementary fertilizer unnecessary. I do use worm casting tea and bat guano tea when I think extra ferts are a good idea, usually halfway through the season when the plants have been producing heavily (and I've been harvesting).

    The advantages to dressing with compost include: 1.) It suppresses weeds; 2.) It retains moisture; 3.) It gives the plants a shot of nutrients every time you water or it rains; 4.) Keeps dirt from splashing on your lettuce when it rains; 5.) It eventually becomes part of the soil.

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  3. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    Here's a couple of closeup before and after shots.

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  4. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    Very nice looking garden! You are way far more organized than I.

    I just pile the material around plants- shredded leaves, half finished compost, coffee grounds (no need to compost them anyway), bunny box material (litter trained rabbits leave poop, hay, and woodpellets as a litter)- just lay it out there and let it do its thing in place. Any leaching ends up in the soil. I don't till, either- so the next year's planting is a snap and the worms are happy.

    Garden rocks with this method, but granted it doesn't look near as neat and tidy as yours.

    My "bins" are made with a length of green coated metal wire garden fence. Make a circle with the fence and attach the 2 ends with cut tag ends of one side, or with a separate wire. Fill. To turn it- just disassemble, move it 1 foot over, reattach the ends, and fork material back in. The beauty of this is that 1 bin can be turned over easily, and when you "unwrap" the last pile it stays in a cylinder shape! Now you can take uncomposted outsdie material off and bury it in the next pile easily.

    I compost much of the "foodier" items that critters go for in the bins- including meat, cheese, sticks, and all the stuff you aren't "supposed" to compost. I composted the remains of a deer I butchered in a pile, and have many times composted whole squirrels and groundhogs- they just disappear in a 150-160F pile :)
  5. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    I'm with you, AP: If it ever lived, I compost it, and that includes clam and mussel shells, lobster remains, deceased small pets, etc.

    I'm not much of a neatnik overall, but when it comes to the garden, I'm a bit of a control freak.

    Here's a shot from last year, peak of the season. This year I don't have quite so much red lettuce planted--it was more than even we could eat, and giving lettuce away is a PIA.

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  6. WILDSOURDOUGH

    WILDSOURDOUGH New Member

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    VERY nice gardens guys !

    As I have been building the last two years, I've had no time to garden. I missed it badly. This year, I got a good one going- after tilling clay and picking out the rocks (some BIG ones !), I went down to my neighbors farm-used to be mine, and got four loads of his winter barn cleanout and dumped 6" of it all over the garden., and planted.
    Seems to be working- I dug down the other day and worms everywhere. Wife is happy cuz this is the earliest we have ever had tomatoes starting to come out.
    Also started a compost barrel- but can see that it is not going to be big enough. Will have to start a pile, but worried that the wildlife will come to mess it up and then get into the garden (no fence yet). Work in progress.

    On a funny note... went to the dump (recycling center) last month, some racer dropped a bunch of those big fat slick tires off, so I took em and cut the 'Hooser' or 'Micky Thompson' sidewalls off and boom- have some really nice potato planters.
  7. jpl1nh

    jpl1nh Minister of Fire

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    Eric that is a beautiful garden. I completely agree about the compost pile. If you have the space, no bin is necessary. AP, the only potential drawback with your method of composting directly in your garden is that the bacteria and fungi that break down the material, uptake all the nitrogen (the most essential plant nutrient) in the initial stages of decomposition. Nitrogen is the main ingrediant necessary for cellular growth in virtually all living things. Once the decomposition reaches the later stages, the dying off of the bacteria/fungi is what releases nitrogen to the plants. So...you actually can deprive the plants of their most essential fertilize ingrediant and reduce their growth potential if you compost too much in your garden during the growing season.
  8. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    That's also true with woody residue like chips or sawdust. It needs to break down completely before you put it in the soil.

    Thanks for the kind words, guys. I don't know how beautiful it is, but it cranks out an incredible amount of food over a relatively short timeframe. We get pretty sick of green beans and red lettuce by the end of the season. I have a nice greenhouse, but have yet to figure out how to produce food on a sustained basis. There's a big difference between a greenhouse and a garden. And while there are pros and cons to each one, the garden is the most reliable, once it gets into production mode.
  9. Doing The Dixie Eyed Hustle

    Doing The Dixie Eyed Hustle Minister of Fire

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    E, nice garden. And compost is mucho importante. I have access to alot of horse manure, so I am always making a compost pile somehwere.

    I'm putting new windows in the house. My back yard has no sun, so we improvised.

    Front yard garden

    [​IMG]

    Couple of tomatoe plants, cherry & Roma, Bell & Hot Pepper, Zucchini (Lord , be kind), and some muskmelon. I saved Zucchini seeds so I replant before the vine borer does it's thing.
  10. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    "AP, the only potential drawback with your method of composting directly in your garden is that the bacteria and fungi that break down the material, uptake all the nitrogen (the most essential plant nutrient) in the initial stages of decomposition. "

    I've never seen any indication of N deficiency, but that may be due to the amount of bunny poop/urine in litter that is added. I didn't have any problems even when started as a lasagna garden.

    That other pic of the garden in full swing is nice. Next year I'm converting more yard to garden- to heck with mowing!
  11. Jags

    Jags Moderate Moderator Staff Member

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    Eric - that is a sweet looking garden. I can gar-own-tee that mine does not look that tidy, but it does produce a few of the goodies that we eat (onions, radishes, zukes, tomato's and various peppers). Nothing like home canned tomatos in the middle of winter when ya want to make a good pot of beef veggie soup or chili.

    Where the heck do you find all your time to make firewood and garden at the level you do, and still keep up with the rest of life. Did you find one of the 28 hr per day clocks?

    Edit: hey, have you hit the 50 cord mark yet?
  12. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    I can usually find time to do the things I really want to do. The garden is pretty front-loaded. By around this time of the summer, most of the work is done and it's just a matter of keeping the weeds and deer under control. The latter is an ongoing problem, especially when the beans start to come in (by the end of this week). One strategy is to hang my woodcutting work shirts on the fence to keep the place smelling like a sweaty human. I also clutter things up by leaving tools, buckets, upside-down tomato cages, etc. in spots where they might otherwise be inclined to jump over the fence. I think they are intimidated by the obstacles and decide not to take the chance. But, inevitably, I get one or two attacks a season, causing my blood pressure to skyrocket and my status as a peace-loving vegetarian to be called into serious question.

    Truth be told, I'd blast 'em on sight if I thought I could get away with it.

    On the wood, I only have room for 43 cords (per a negotiation with the Mrs.), so when I hit that milestone, I'm done for the season, baby.
  13. Jags

    Jags Moderate Moderator Staff Member

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    Oh they KNOW not to come into MY garden.....I love venison jerky.
  14. Telco

    Telco New Member

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    Man, you guys suck! I'm so jealous! I want enough land to do that so bad I can taste it!

    If I were able to do what you're doing I'd have a huge root cellar, and would be big time into the stuff that lasts all year like taters and corn. Some of the Mother Earth mags I used to read said that taters would last the whole year if covered in straw and kept dark underground, and that this is how they were preserved for hundreds of years before modern methods took over. We'd be some canning fools around my place every summer too.
  15. Jags

    Jags Moderate Moderator Staff Member

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    I still have the 100 yr old root cellar with the tater and onion bins. Don't use them though.
  16. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    My garden is only about 25' x 25' and you can get by with less. Heck, you can plant veggies in your flower beds or front yard, or just about anywhere else with decent sun. Soil sucks? Hey, that's what the compost is all about. Five years ago my garden was all clay and rocks.

    Carrots are another thing you can store in a root cellar. Just bury them in sand and dig them out as needed. I've even left some in the ground and then gone out in the winter and dug through the snow to retrieve them. Sometimes you get a hankering for a fresh, organic carrot that nothing else seems to satisfy.

    If you want compost but don't have the time or the room to build a pile or bins, try to find out where your municipality dumps its leaves. If you dig down into any good leaf dump, you can recover beautiful compost and haul it home in plastic tubs in the trunk of your car. Trust me, you'll be the only one competing for it.
  17. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    Wood residue all by itself isn't much good. It has plenty of organic matter, which makes the soil looser and better able to hold water, but it doesn't have any nutrients, like you get with composted leaves and other green vegetative matter. The vast majority of the nutrients in a tree, in other words, are in the leaves, and to a lesser extent in the bark and roots.

    But to address your question, decomposed sawdust should be black and powdery and crumble in your hand. But chances are even sawdust at the bottom of an old pile isn't composted, since you need lots of nitrogen to do that and, as we know, there ain't much of that in sawdust. If you dig down and you find worms, however, then they're probably eating the sawdust and crapping out the castings, which look like dirt and are pretty good fertilizer. Worms can convert just about anything organic into decent fertilizer.
  18. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    I disagree, somewhat. I compost sawdust regularly. Wood does have certain nutrient- just very little N. Wood ash is a good source of K, Ca, and other nutrients- and it follows that the wood is as well. If the sawdust is just incorporated into the soil then it may bind up N and cause issues. Left on the surface as a mulch it's fine, except that it may repel water in some cases. Decayed, composted sawdust, however, is a good source of humus.

    Using wood pellets as litter- they explode into moist sawdust when bunny urine hits them. This, along with hay etc are added directly to beds as available. At the end of the season, only the top layer that stays drier and is exposed to sun is not black gold. The worms till it into the soil for me.

    If you see a pile of woodchips that appears to have steam coming off it in the morning... it's composting. The thermophilic composters would not thrive there if there was nothing good to consume. Finishing this off without a shot of N (mix in grass clippings, or pee on it) takes a long time. I have brush piles that I move to get at the broken down wood- the garden loves it and it's a regular mulch for me.

    I literally take a machete to my tomato plants once a year to get between garden rows- and there is far more fruit than I could use.
  19. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    Good point on the nutrients in wood. I'm not sure what burning does to the wood chemically, but obviously it's not creating those goodies out of nothing.

    The other thing that is essential for composting is oxygen. That's why you'll get compost faster if you turn your pile periodically. Not much oxygen in the middle of a sawdust pile.

    Chem is obviously not my strong suit. I'm wondering what relationship there is between composting and spontaneous combustion. Same process only faster? Because chip piles will spontaneously combust under the right conditions. Perhaps because there's nitrogen in the bark contained in whole tree chips, while most logs these days are debarked before being sawn, so it's basically nothing but wood.

    Oh yeah, urine gets a compost bin going bigtime. I used to put it on mine. Being male, I used the standard applicator (when nobody was looking).
  20. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    LOL- the beauty of leaving a few trees around the yard.

    I have found that the big values in turning are 1) breaking up clumps and mats that stop air flow, 2) distributing moisture (you can water forever on some piles and the middle/bottom doesn't get moist), and 3) mixing in the uncomposted outer materials. If the pile is "properly constructed" (whatever that means)- it may stay aerobic in a pile up to 6' high and 6' wide (read a paper on this... I like compost)! In fact- during a hot cycle- air rises through a pile and is drawn in at the bottom- it's a convection heat pump!

    When turned- some small amount of air is introduced, but it is consumed by microbes very quickly (minutes). I know some people that put in PVC pipes with a cross piece at the bottom and holes drilled- trying to keep air added through the pile. I'm not that organized. Build it right- it heats up and cools off, turn, wait.

    I too am curious on the spontaneous combustion. It seems like if the pile gets hot enough- then it should kill the microbes creating the heat at some point and it should be self limiting. Some cases I've read about involve large hay piles in barns that build up heat, and if the side slides down as it settles- air rushes in and dust is raised as well. How this all gets above the flash pont- I dunno. maybe there's some gas build up that is released in this stage at the lower explosive limit (LEL). For chip piles- when they shred green branches, there is a higher N level because there's a higher bark to wood ratio- that thinner bark has more N, and of course any leaves are loaded with it.
  21. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    While we're on the topic-

    a couple of dogma items that bug the heck out of me WRT compost

    1) You do NOT need to add compost or dirt to get the microbes in a pile to start it up. Every living thing is covered in bugs waiting to go to work. If I have the materials and build a 1 yard pile- it's 120-130 F in 6-8 hours, and over 150 in a day usually. If anyone thinks that's not fast enough- they have issues. The finishing - cool phase microbes are what is in that finished compost anyway- they don't improve the hot phase stuff.

    2) Activated compost tea has not been proven to do a damn thing as a foliar spray that just adding compost around a plant doesn't do. Brewing etc- all very fun. People say "I used it and it was great, so it does do something"- to which the other side says "controled studies show little, no, or the opposite effect as compared to good ole compost", and even these studies don't account for the spray that just ends up on the ground or gets washed into the soil.

    3) compost activator is for people that want to spend money. See #1 above on adding microbes. The main ingredient is nitrogen fertilizer... add more greens- they come with their own microbes.
    OK- I feel better now.
  22. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    I use guano and worm castings for tea. As you say, the compost is best applied as dressing or turned into the soil. I view it basically as long-term ferts and soil builder.
  23. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    Worm casting and guano teas are great stuff- I make bunny poop tea and spread it around. A great shot of good nutrient.

    The activated compost tea with the aeration and all that is now a religion of sorts.
  24. Eric Johnson

    Eric Johnson Mod Emeritus

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    I've made a lot of aerobic compost tea over the years (with molassas) but it's a lot of work and I prefer the worm casting-in-water approach. Since I use leaf mold for bedding in my worm bin, it's basically the same stuff--just farther along in the process. Hard to go wrong. I don't miss our late rabbit very much, but I wish I had her manure to feed the worms. They say it's the perfect worm food.
  25. Adios Pantalones

    Adios Pantalones Minister of Fire

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    We have 3 litter trained indoor rabbits. The poop is great stuff, but when people tell me they want rabbits for the fertilizer I need to remind them that the rabbit does not make nutrient- they only package it differently than they consume it.

    Rabbit food is a great fertilizer and you can just throw it in a spreader, or scoop it around plants with your hands. All that N that went into the ammonia in the urine is still in that convenient package. It contains a natural enzyme that stimulates plant growth. You get the same nutrient and skip the rabbit's butt.

    I have used it as lawn and garden fertilizer directly- and the worms love it. I think they're more active in situ, loosening and tilling the soil where you need it. I dug into my garden to plant something later in the season last year and it was over 4" pure worm castings. The worms were almost at horror movie level. That's from spreading general yard waste, bunny box stuff, and free coffee grounds from Starbucks.
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