Tag Archives: compost

Garden Has Too Much Compost? Or Not Enough?

Just finished reading a fascinating article on soil fertility by Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) that notes that gardens can “abused” by too much compost. Is there such a thing?

Frank, owner of International Ag Labs, a private soil testing firm (www.aglabs.com) gives examples of gardens “abused by too much compost” and gardens with “neglected/abandoned soil.” (See illustration)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can "abused" by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can be “abused” by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Frank posits that if you want to have maximum nutrient density in your crops, then you should ignore humus (as it will sort itself out with proper mineral content), and should have:

— Nitrogen: manage by crop needs and conductivity;

— P and K: 200-300 pounds each, 1 to 1 ratio; increase K slightly for Potassium-loving plants;

— Calcium: 3,500-4,000 pounds per acre; calcium to magnesium ration from 7-15:1;

Conductivity: 400-600 micro Siemens/centimeter — and he gives amendments necessary to correct that (for more, see the article).

I say it’s a fascinating article because, honestly, after wracking my brain, I can think of few gardens that suffer from “too much” compost. I do remember one friend’s garden that I suspect was “too much.” The soil was so moist and rich that it probably could have served as a worm bed for all its amendments.

But even Frank notes that the solution to a garden “abused” by too much compost is simply to grow more without adding more. Maybe “abuse” is too strong a word for the issue of adding compost. Additionally, given the fact that it takes so much raw vegetative matter to create so little “black gold,” I doubt too many gardens are approaching the “abuse” stage.

Nonetheless, the figures Frank gives are instructional. Looking at the soil report I obtained for my garden from Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service (see earlier blog), I can see that there are some interesting figures that conflict with Frank’s interpretations.

Mind you, this garden is brand new; my landlady said the backyard was used as a garden many years ago, but not in the past 10 years or so. My test and the MSU interpretation vs Frank’s interpretation:

Phosphorus — 132 lbs per acre (MSU: high) – Frank says this is low and should be 200-300 lbs. I suspect that, with adding compost, that figure will rise;

Potassium – 156 lbs per acre (MSU: low) – Frank says this is just below the 200-300 pounds that’s ideal. Again, I suspect that compost will raise that.

Magnesium – 369 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – linked to calcium by Frank;

Zinc – 97.9 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – Not considered most important by Frank. That could fall, if I’m growing green manures (cover crops), which I expect to do;

Calcium – 3706 lbs per acre – Falls within perfect number for Frank and within the proper ratio to Magnesium he gives.

Everyone who has a garden/farm and pays attention to soil tests probably has his/her own ideas about what the proper ratios should be and how to go about fixing them.

MSU, in my soil report, for example, suggests 34-0-0 pre plant (high nitrogen) fertilizer and 0-0-60 (high Potash) fertilizer — synthetic chemicals. In my opinion, shared by most organic growers, such a course of action would burn the soil, killing earthworms and microbes that keep the soil environment healthy.

Rather, what I intend to do is plant the seeds with a fish emulsion to provide nitrogen, then side dress (adding more natural liquid fertilizer) and foliar feeding after the plants are up. In addition, I plan to plant clover between the rows and on unused soil to build nitrogen for my fall planting.

I don’t know if this falls within Frank’s ideas or not; but I agree with his overarching conclusion that it’s the “pattern” of nutrients in the soil that’s more important than the figures alone. Visual symptoms of the plants themselves will tell you what’s going on with the soil.  And: “Your role as steward of the soil is to create the right pattern in the soil.”

I would say that I disagree on his view on humus; in my opinion, developing proper humus ensures better availability of nutrients, which is what he’s aiming at. You can’t build tilth with minerals alone; you must build humus to create the environment for plants to efficiently process available nutrients. Proper humus assures adequate water retention, oxygen in the soil, and ease of root and fungal growth. This is done by rotating crops, plowing under green manure, adding compost and soil amendments, as needed.

As he notes, plants grown directly above a limestone bed can show a calcium deficiency, but biologically available calcium is as much a product of good soil structure (in my opinion) as the ratio of other minerals that can be tested in the lab.

It may be a question of which end of the microscope you are looking through; the goal — and ingredients — remain the same. But soil structure, humus, tilth, are issues that a organic gardener/farmer can readily see and control. To ignore that end of the equation may be just as much a “neglect” or “abuse” of soils as any scientific test may reveal.

For the average gardener, what does this mean? Give your soil the love it richly deserves, using natural, sustainable and organic growing methods, and it will richly reward you with healthful, nutritionally dense foods.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Spin Composters Can Create Quick Compost

You may have noticed in looking at pictures of my garden in this blog that I have several spin composters, also called barrel composters, rotating barrels or compost tumblers. At least online, gardeners either seem to love them or hate them. I love mine.

Spinning or barrel composters aren't for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Spinning or barrel composters aren’t for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The reasons people say they don’t like them is because, they claim: 1) they smell; 2) they don’t hold much; 3) they get heavy when they get full, too heavy to spin. And more.

I would counter that spin composters aren’t the be all and end all of composting. They have their limitations and, once you realize those limitations, then they simply are another tool that is appropriate in certain circumstances.

I would say: 1) they don’t smell any more than any other compost pile if you have them correctly balanced “brown” and #green”; they hold half of the capacity of the container and, beyond that 3) they are too heavy to spin.

So, consider, if you have a 60 gallon composter, you can start with a minimum of 30 gallons of (undigested) compost, which will digest down to maybe a little more than half of that, 15 gallons — a good amount for a small garden. That’s a lot smaller than, say, a 4-foot by 4-foot fixed bin, but  it’s not a fixed bin. Presumably, you bought a spin composted for quicker compost and the convenience of having it close to the garden or moving it where you want it.

A spin or barrel composted can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

A spin or barrel composter can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I can attest that it makes good compost. I’ve had these for about four years. Mind you, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a fixed compost bin. Years ago, I had one compost bin  made from wooden pallets wired together that was about 4-foot by 4-foot that I used for about 15 years and it just got better and better. I also used to just dump stuff in it and forget it. That’s fine, too.

At our farm, we had one big bulk pile out near the field where we dumped all manner of matter to be composted from a dump truck. If you are growing several acres, that’s the way to do it. You can turn it with a pitchfork or turning fork or with a tractor, if need be.

But if you only have a garden or small plot, a spin composter works fine. We had these four composters next to two plots where we grew greens: one about 2,500 square feet, the other about 800 square feet. (Note: we did not broadcast the spinners’  compost across the plots, like we did composted horse manure, which we dumped by the quarter ton to build up the soil; but we did use it to build up the rows where we tilled and planted.)

We put those spinners out there behind the house so we could have a place to put kitchen scraps and yard waste from those gardens without having to walk out to the field for the big pile. They fulfilled their function perfectly.

What I do is keep putting stuff in one until it is about half filled; then put duct tape across the top with the date when it was sealed, and continue to spin it once a week while I start filling and spinning another one. That way, I know when it will be ready (in 30 days or more from the date on the duct tape).

Since I have four composters, when they are all going, they are staggered so that I always have some compost, if I need it. It doesn’t hurt if you go over long on it. If you’re too short, you’ll notice when you open it (it will smell bad, or like ammonia, or items in it will not be digested, or it will still be hot).

In the fall, you can go heavy on falling leaves for the spinners if you’re planning on letting them overwinter until spring. These spinners had leaves in them from last fall.

Mix “brown” and “green” materials about equally for best results.

Green materials are what the term implies: fresh stuff, like vegetable food scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags or leftover tea.

Brown materials are dry stuff, like shredded paper, wood chips, old leaves, etc.

Don't throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Don’t throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Be careful what you put in them: nothing toxic (like sawdust from treated lumber or dead plants sprayed with poisons). Consider your compost bins like living beings. They are digesting material that you could not so that you can return to the earth the materials she produced to feed you and your family once again. It’s all a big Circle of Life.

Some advice: 1) err on the side of brown or dry, to avoid bad smells; 2) avoid manures. Yes, I know, manure (especially cow and horse manure) is great for the garden, but I personally would prefer to have it further from the house and also I would err on the side of caution in composting: longer composting time.

We always got our composted manure from a neighbor who kept horses; the manure was from a pile that had been mucked out the previous season: one full year of composting. (Note: If you are going be certified organic, there are specific rules that must be followed regarding compost, including records of ingredients used, turnings, and temperature readings outlined in Section 205.203(c)(2) of the NOP; rules regarding composted manures are quite stringent; for more info, see: http://tilth.org/certification/frequently-asked-questions/producer-farm-faqs).

Spinners are good for quick compost from household and common materials. Although some people say they can get good manure from a spinner in 15 days, I’d go 30 days minimum: raw compost can harm your crops, not to mention fail to digest weed seeds. Some people also suggest letting the first filling of the spinner sit for a week or so to allow it to heat up before starting to spin.

Thirty days is not gospel; it depends on the materials in the spinner (some items, such as limbs, may take longer), the ambient temperature outside (microbes that break down matter slow or even shut down in cooler temperatures), and the amount of matter to be digested, as well as whether it’s rotated properly, can affect the maturation of the compost. Moreover, materials may be too wet or too dry or clump up in the spinner (just keep spinning; it will break down; if too wet, add more “brown,” too dry, add more “green.”)


For bigger projects, if you have the space, in addition to the spinners, designate a back corner of the yard for longterm compost: such as tree limbs, manure, bulk waste.

Turn the barrel once a week, at least. It’s not the end of the world if you forget; but, presumably, you have a compost bucket in the house which you are emptying every day (to avoid smells, bugs, etc.), so presumably also you should be spinning your spinner, too.

In my opinion, some people get too uptight about compost. While it’s true that you want to err on the side of caution regarding manures, even the stringent National Organic Program standards don’t restrict adding raw plant material to your garden. If you’re just composting coffee grounds, newspapers, egg shells, leftover tea, newspapers and yard waste that you know hasn’t been treated with any chemicals, you should be fine. And spin composters can really help with that.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Greens easy to grow for winter

Sept. 9, 2011
Greens easy to plant now for organic produce in winter
If you haven’t planted your fall garden yet, it’s not too late. For example, scuffing up a plot for greens is simple and will last until deep frost.
Just cut the old plants in your 4X8 “Jim’s Plot,” rake it up for your compost pile, and scatter mustard and turnip green seeds, and water.
Even a simple organic garden like that can keep you fed with fresh greens into the cold weather – maybe until January.
When frost comes, just throw a light blanket over it. (For more sophisticated gardens, it’s worth it to invest in Agribon, which comes in various weights, down to 6-8 degrees below frost.)
If you add collard greens, kale and cabbages to the mix, it’s possible to carry on picking greens even later.
Many swear that collards taste better after a frost with the purplish hue that signifies that on the leaves as a mark of distinction.
Last year, we had some plants – such as radicchio – survive into the teens, along with some beets (the leaves grew back and were delicious as greens). The radicchio, however, became quite bitter as time went on.
It doesn’t hurt to experiment.
We’ll continue this dialogue as the season progresses.
For now, have fun! It’s a great time to plant as the temperatures cool, and it will be even greater when you can pick fresh produce when the cold winds blow.
Reader feedback: My son is building me five 4×8 “Jim’s Plot” raised beds in our backyard and I seek your recommendations on what we should use to fill these beds. The beds are actually 24 inches off ground level – as he is using two 12×2 inch boards to build them.
You can buy topsoil at some of the local yard and garden stores in bulk by the yard. For a 4×8 plot it doesn’t take that much: for example, one cubic yard equals 27 cubic feet. It’s mostly ground up vegetative debris, so it’s not going to be really fine or fertile. But it will fill up your bed. You’ll only be using the top 5 inches or so of topsoil for most plants, so that’s where you want to concentrate.
Don’t feel like you have to actually fill the beds to the top. Start composting. When fall comes, rake and pile leaves for composting. Consider these beds as a beginning that you will add to over time, building up compost.
BTW: When you spread compost, only a quarter inch on the top is needed when it comes to fertility; any more is overkill. As it adds layer upon layer, it will develop the way you want.
Let me add, that five 4×8 plots is very ambitious. That would translate into tons of organic matter.Better to think small, and over time.
Till the ground in the beds and then add what you can to a 4-5 inch depth. Rotate your beds. Plant, say, one or two 4X8 plots for a fall garden, and fill the others with leaves, cover them with black plastic over the winter and let them compost down.
That way, you’ll have a deeper base to work from in the spring. Enjoy!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Better food, a better planet

May 26, 2011

Growing organic makes for better food, a better planet

I had a nice email exchange with a reader about organic gardening, in which he essentially said he “sort of” did it.

As I wrote to the reader, back in the 1980s and ’90s, I was doing as he is now, planting hybrids (Better Boy tomatoes were my faves) and lightly using chemicals. I thought that if I just limited the amount of synthetics, that would be “organic” enough, and I reasoned, what was wrong with hybrids, anyway?

It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that I found that even a “smattering” of chemicals destroyed the delicate balance of organisms that make up a truly organic garden. By using chemicals to change one issue, such as blight, or bugs, or using harsh, synthetic fertilizer, necessitated even stronger artificial methods in a self-perpetuating cycle. And, all the while, I was destroying the delicate microbial life that enriched the vegetables, ensuring nutrients were going from the ground into my body.

I had no idea that when I occasionally threw a handful of anhydrous ammonia into the compost or soil, I was killing the unseen universe that supported abundant, nutritious, healthy produce.

Further, I had no idea that by relying on hybrids that I was voting with my dollars to decrease planet’s biodiversity.

Every year, between consumers not planting rare seeds and giant Ag Biz conglomerates buying up seed stocks and either converting them to genetically engineered products or discontinuing those lines, we’re reducing food plant diversity.

What happens when we no longer have access to diverse seeds? We set up our food seed supply to be owned by a handful of private multinational corporations and open the way for potential famine when a pathogen inevitably mutates to attack those few lines of patented seeds. And, by the way, do you think that entire nations will calmly starve to death when crops fail and there are few commercial seeds available except those genetically vulnerable to disease?

So, I changed my thinking and behavior to true organic. This is the path I believe is something of a “back to the future” approach, away from petrochemicals and artificial fertility and working toward restoring the earth and bringing balance for healthy crops – and people!

Grow organic. Cultivate heirlooms and rare seeds. Enjoy the rich bounty of the earth. And know you are doing your part for better food, a better planet, for future generations.

Reader response: Ratio for applying compost?

A little bit of compost goes a long way. Apply 1/8 inch to 1/2 inch on your garden. That translates to 1-4 cubic feet of compost for 100 square feet. Incorporate that into the the top 2-4 inches of soil by digging or raking or tilling. Apply more thickly to poorer soils, more lightly to richer soils.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to lay it on more thickly if you have it. Just work it in the soil. At ShooFly Farm, we have several 50-gallon “spin” composters that we use, and they digest down to about 1 1/2 to 2 cubic feet every 90 days. We just keep filling them in sequence, so we generally have compost routinely available. You can also use windrows; that is, pile up the material and turn it from time to time until it’s digested into dark, rich matter.

Author Michael Pollan makes fun of organic gardeners’ fixation with compost, but it’s for a reason: The plants you put into your body contain the nutrients that are in soil. If your soil does not contain the full array of minerals and trace elements, along with the proper beneficial bacteria that allow the plants’ roots’ efficient intake of them, then your food and your body will be lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

It’s called “full belly” syndrome. You can buy processed food, or vegetables grown in depleted soils, and fill your belly, but won’t receive all that you need for strong muscles, bones, hair and teeth. Nurture your compost. By saving such waste as food scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, melon rinds and yard clippings, you are turning trash into gold. Your compost is like money in the bank – in the coin of health for you and your family!

Reader response: I have a big problem with fire ants taking over my raised beds. How can I control them organically? There is an OMRI-approved fire ant bait called Garden Safe; it’s sold at some Walmarts. You may have to order it online. Although it’s OMRI approved for certified organic gardening, we usually dump coffee grounds on the mounds if they are in the garden per se, then use the Garden Safe around the garden. The active ingredient is Spinosad, which is a bacterium. You can also pour boiling water on the mound.

Online. Plants looking bedraggled? Clip this out and save it: Common symptoms of soil deficiencies: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/nutrient-deficiency-problem-solver.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Traditional’ planting time

April 15, 2011

‘Traditional’ planting time no longer set in stone

Next week marks Earth Day and Good Friday – both major events for gardeners (aside from religious and social reasons).

Good Friday is the traditional day central Mississippians have planted seeds in their gardens.

Some old-time gardeners plant by the moon, which means they plant while the moon is waxing, not waning; in which case, you’re a bit late as Monday is full moon. You would have to wait until May 3 (new moon) to “plant by the dark of the moon” with it waxing again – which could be a good idea for plants that like hot weather, like okra.

When is the right time to plant? Nowdays, there are so many hybrids that can be planted at various times that it’s hard to tell when the right time may be. For example, when I was young, farmers would want to get their corn in the ground by April 15 so they could avoid pests later on and still have time to plant soybeans and/or cotton.

The rule of thumb for cotton and other summer crops was that the soil temperature would be right when folks stopped sitting on buckets to fish and instead sat directly on the ground. (If your bottom didn’t get cold, it was warm enough to plant.)

Nowdays, though, I see folks planting corn in the middle of May; and a lot of folks don’t plant by the moon, or Good Friday.

And have you tried to buy corn that’s not genetically modified? A friend and I have been trying to find old traditional, local varieties to plant, without much luck.

Pioneer, which used to be a widespread variety here is no more, unless it’s GMO (which is banned for organic).

Mosby Prolific Corn (introduced by J.K. Mosby of Lockhart, Miss., in the 1800s), which used to be widespread, is now a rare heirloom that, as far as I can find, is not available locally in bulk seed.

We should be conserving local heirloom seeds, not allowing them to be bought up by multinational ag giants, to be modified genetically or discontinued and allowed to go extinct. Genetic diversity in plants is something we owe to future generations and it doesn’t belong to anyone, much less as a patented monopoly.

Normally, I would plant the week after Easter, since we here in central Mississippi usually have a cold spell then. But the temperatures have been well above normal and Easter is late this year.

So, we’ve been planting, really, since mid-March. Up so far are peas, onions, shallots, various greens, lettuces and chard. We’ve also been planting: tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumbers, beans, nasturtiums (edible flowers) and various other plants. Because of the heat, some of our plants, such as radishes and salad mizuna, just bolted. They bypassed maturity. The weather got them confused!

You want to plant as early as possible, being mindful of the number of days listed on the seed packages for maturity. For example, if you plant April 15 and it says on the package “90 days,” that means its average date to bear fruit will be July 15.

We’ve found that, growing organic, the later you plant, the more problems with insects and weather. So, if you plant May 15 in that hypothetical plot, fruition will be Aug. 15, which is also usually quite hot in Mississippi and often a time of drought.

Lots of varieties wilt in temps above 100 or won’t bear fruit and treated water can stunt microrganisms in the soil which further stress plants, leading to insect problems and disease.

So, plant as early as you feel you comfortably can.

Remember: Organic! A Reminder on planting: If you’ve got your 4-by-8-foot Jim’s plot up and running, that is, having put compost in it all winter, you should be able to disc it up easily with a shovel.

Remember to use certified organic seeds or heirloom varieties and no synthetic fertilizers.

When you’re ready to plant, cover each seed or roots with fish emulsion and kelp (there are dozens of trade names, check with your local garden store) as fertilizer, mixed with water; it should be plenty of a boost, along with any amendments you have already added like compost, and/or pellets of dolomitic lime or greensand.

Earth Day: Big observances are planned in Starkville and Oxford:

•At Starkville, Mississippi State University’s Earth Day and ECO Week are in the works. The main event will be the Earth Day Fair on Thursday, since the campus is closed for Good Friday. Green Starkville, MSU ECO and the Students for Sustainable Campus are teaming for this event.

For more information, see: http://www.greenstarkville. org/earth-day-2011.

•Oxford, the University of Mississippi and Yokna(patawpha) Bottoms Farm are celebrating Green Week today through April 22.

For more information, see: http://www.mississippigreenweek.com and http://yoknabottoms.com.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.