Tag Archives: composting

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.

Organic practices lessen E. coli threat

 

June 9, 2011

Organic practices lessen threat of disease

The news this week that a deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Germany was from an organic farm raised flags with me, as much for its improbability as for its deadly nature.

Since those first reports, the German government has backed off its claim that an organic farm produced the outbreak.

While it’s possible for any farm – including an organic farm – to have produce infected by the bacterium, and consumers should always wash produce from the grocery, regardless of source, it’s less likely for organic produce for a variety of reasons.

First, the incidence of virulent strains of E. coli is a direct result of conventional (not organic!) farming of beef, where animals are “finished” on corn.

Ruminants are not naturally equipped to digest corn and it leads to bacteria (E. coli among them) being excreted from the gut. When coupled with the common practice of conventional agriculture (not organic!) to feed antibiotics to farm animals, virulent strains resistant to treatment are formed.

These bacterium are found in the manure of conventionally raised farm animals (not certified organic!) and that manure is often used to fertilize crops.

Here is where the possibility of E. coli can enter the organic food train, depending on the producer:

In certified organic vegetable crop production, strict manure handling is required.

Specifically: The U.S. regulations for organic production require that raw animal manure must be composted unless it is applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with soil; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles. See 7 CFR 205.203 (c)(1) and (2).

Residual hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, disease organisms and other undesirable substances can be eliminated through high-temperature aerobic composting.

So, presumably, E. coli would be eradicated in certified organic crops – if manure is properly composted or incorporated.

Again, I’m not saying it cannot occur, but, for producers of organic crops, the likelihood of transmitting E. coli is much smaller.And, for those (such as in our case, for example) where only composted horse manure or composted grass-fed or organic cow manure is used, not “raw” manure, or from industrial agriculture confined and corn-finished herds, the likelihood drops to virtually zero.

Me? I say: Eat organic, eat local! Know your farmer. Compose your own compost and manures from known – or OMRI verified – sources.

For the home organic gardner: Anyone who is actually growing his or her own food and uses manure would do well to read the book: Holy Sh*t: Managing Manure To Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 2010, $17.50).

Online: For more on manures, see Organic Trade Association Q&A: http://bit.ly/eW35Gb.

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.

Plant Dynamism

April 8, 2011

It’s official: Spring has sprung with flowering of ‘invasives’

Outside my study window, the pecan tree is leafing. The old folks say that when that happens, the cold weather is gone.

The great cold front that passed through last weekend – with a skirmish line of thunderstorms from New Orleans to the Canada border – seems to have ushered in a cold snap that has everything turning green.

It, thankfully, washed away the yellow clouds of pine pollen, and now buttercups (yes, another “invasive,” but a beautiful one!) are covering the fields.

We’re preparing to plant our tomatoes, peppers, melons and other warm weather plants in the next couple of weeks.

•Plant dynamism: In a previous column, I noted that many of the common “weeds” in our gardens (e.g., dandelions, henbit, et al.) are not “natural” in that they are “invasives,” or immigrants from Europe and Asia. A wonderful article in The New York Times, however, points out that this is a pejorative – even elitist! – view (which many fellow organic growers also reject).

In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” Hugh Raffles (April 3: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/opinion/03Raffles.html?src=recg) writes: “Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary historical line based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers.”

It’s true that many of the immigrants are much desired, such as honeybees and apple trees, just as many are nuisances, such as tumbleweeds and nut grass. And, as I noted in the article, some insects prefer to munch on the imports over our cultivated plants, thus providing a welcome diversion in the organic grower’s garden to help beneficial insects defeat, outwit or overwhelm the undesirables.

So, like others, I suppose I should adopt a less pejorative term – “opportunistic” plants, perhaps. Long live diversity in the garden!

Reader Response: I would advise against using raw or even composted chicken litter in your garden. While using this poultry litter as a soil amendment is not prohibited by the National Organic Program (with some restrictions), there is growing concern about heavy metals – particularly arsenic – that are present from such concentrated animal feeding operations.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, arsenic from poultry litter can potentially leach into lakes or streams. It can build up in the soils with repeated applications; and rather than breaking down, composting concentrates it. (See: http://bit.ly/dSlx45.)

Food origins: Ever wonder where your grocery’s food comes from? A new organization is working to document all fruit and vegetable shipments, stating what, where, how and if any food alerts are issued. For more, see: http://www.harvestmark.com.

Only those growers who contract with harvestmark are included. But consumers can also read the little stickers on the food at the grocery to winnow some information.

If the number on the label begins with a 4, it is conventional produce and most likely has been sprayed with pesticides.

Genetically modified “food” will start with the number 8. Organic produce will begin with the number 9.

For the sake of food safety, stronger labeling should be required to protect consumers.

A New Ag: Agriculture is on the verge of a new age that, if successful, will leave all of the “modern” and “conventional” methods of relying on fossil fuels for production – insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, diesel and gasoline – obsolete.

As Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has pointed out, it was a mere accident that agriculture began with annual plants 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

As the Ice Age ended, pockets of fertility such as the Tigras and Euphrates Valley, emerged. The first foodstuffs readily available were cereal grains which sprouted as annuals (that is, must be planted ever year). Those seeds were readily available, abundant and were thus able to be transported to far-off regions.

But just as easily, our ancestors could have chosen perennials. Had they done so, the nature of agriculture would be far different, and easier on the environment.

That’s what The Land Institute is in the process of developing: natural seeds for perennial foodstuffs.

Imagine fields of grain that are not cut down, but picked; fruits that bear year after year from the same stalks; no more tilling the soil or spraying poisons, but planting “companion” plants that provide shade or nutrients to the soil that complement each other’s needs.

This is the future of agriculture: sustainability. Not chemicals that kill and poison, but life that complements, nurtures and produces. I hope I live to see it.

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.