My appeal to growing food was enhanced by the idea of valuing all resources and not letting anything go to waste unnecessarily. This is what defines Permaculture Principle #6. Permaculture consists of 12 principles defined by Sepp Holzer, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies. That’s a fancy way of saying permaculture is a way for humans to live with nature as nature lives. This does not mean moving into the woods and living in trees. Far from it. It means the easiest way to bring forth productive life is to do what nature does. Nature does not sow 10,000 acres of only one kind of corn and then nurture the soil with roundup and other chemicals made from petroleum. Neither should humans.
At todolisthome.com we are wise enough to know that we alone can’t stop Monsanto and mono-culture Instead we try to focus on solutions to our local environment for which we are responsible for and can actually influence. Thus, if I want the best that nature has to offer from our property which is just 1/3 of an acre then it is necessary to observe and follow natural productive patterns. If this becomes fruitful and educational to others over time along then with all of the other great folks out there on the net sharing similar information the need to confront the current complex agriculture system becomes diminished as our power can grow in ignoring it. But that is beyond the capability of this podcast to dwell into at this time. Instead I’ll continue to focus on composting needs on my small property.
It’s February and cold and snowy today in northern Virginia but warm spring days are just two months away. Parsley is growing under the light system and chives and green onions will be sowed this weekend. Gardening for 2012 is under way and will get busier over as time marches on. This will be fourth season growing food at the home and it is important for me to think of all of the other pieces that make up the 20 plus gardens we will be growing this year. Fresh home made compost is essential to the success of the gardens and other land on my property and it is time to prepare for making compost on a large scale.
The four most important things for all of the plants that we grow are water, light, warmth and soil. Water mostly comes from the home when seeds are son indoors and rain when the plants are outside. However, we also do a fair amount of rain water capture which helps to keep plants happy during the dry hot days of summer. Moisture throughout the season is also maintained with the effective use of compost as mulch which helps to hold water in soil rather than escaping through dry dirt on hot days. Light is managed by the grow light system through winter and early spring. And the sun takes over once the plants can be transplanted or sown outside.
Warmth is managed by starting the seeds in a upper level bathtub and once sprouted they are moved into the green room where the lights are along with different sinks. These heat sinks consist of one 35 gallon black garbage can full of water and one can of similar size full of compost.
Soil for starting plants is made from vermiculite, compost and peat moss. The soil outside is similar in construct but the new hugelkultur beds have literally tons more of nutrients added through the use of building raised beds on top of big piles of logs, twigs, branches leaves and of course compost. Throughout the life of the plants while they are in the ground the requirement of nutrients to the soil does not diminish. To keep all plants healthy whether annual (meaning they only grow one season) or perennial (meaning they grow several years) it is important to supply the soil occasionally with more nutrients. I do this with compost. Of the four important components of growing healthy plants compost is integral to 3 of them. The importance of composting is not to be underestimated.
Natural patterns that I have observed over the years since my childhood have been in forests where life always seems in endless supply. I used to wonder why life in the forests seemed in endless supply until I became more inquisitive and learned that nature recycles. Leaves, trees, animals and all sorts of other life forms fall to the forest floor and over time are ground up and eventually become part of the environment again. What those observations and my interest in gardening led me to was new knowledge as ancient as the earth itself. The earth has always been building up on top of its previous forms and gardening mimics this building up of new life on old life.
This brings me to the subject of compost or as I prefer to call it – Black Gold. Before I ever began gardening I first made compost. It was almost three years ago when I began to research about how to plan for our first gardens and I eventually came across the subject of composting. Virginia Tech and The University of Illinois had produced websites on the subject of composting for the homeowner. Being a new homeowner at the time it was natural that I was drawn to them. Of the dozens of good websites out there I found that these two university sites which I link to in today’s show notes were the easiest to understand and allow for application of new knowledge. I knew nothing of composting and previously thought that any amenities added to a home garden would have to come from a home store. I quickly learned otherwise and was intrigued by the idea of recycling certain waste from our home instead of sending it to the county landfill. To clarify I was highly interested in the idea of getting better and bigger food out of my yet unbuilt gardens for free. Well not exactly free because I knew some labor would be involved but I relished the thought of making my own black gold and seeing my kids with holding big fat tomatoes and cucumbers in their hands.
Making black gold is a long process that first involved selecting a place to make compost and finding materials to build a proper sized composting container. As you will see in the links in today’s show notes the concept I followed on was making the compost bin from discarded and free wooden pallets. This design produce aerobic compost or compost that has a lot air in the system while it is being made. This allows for odorless compost full of white creepy crawlies to thrive and do what they do best. Eat waste. The pallets allowed for me to take the recycling effort beyond our own waste to that of others. The four pallet compost bin was placed out of site and out of mind behind our shed in the back. My son and I nailed the pallets together and wired three sides shut. The fourth pallet was hinged by wire and had a wire hook for making a large closed box. This 4 foot by 4 foot box was the perfect size for allowing the materials that would become compost to mesh together at the right proportions and make the right amount of heat to create the black gold.
I remember my neighbor at the time coming to check what all the racket was about and when I told him it was for a compost bin he just laughed and moved on. The idea of recycling materials ourselves on our own property was not a familiar concept in my new neighborhood but that spurred me on to really make this work.
Once the box was made I began to layer the inside as indicated by the University of Illinois guide of first placing a large amount of sticks, branches and twigs to allow for some air flow at the bottom. On top of this i placed about 1 foot of leaves, followed by a layer of grass clippings, a gallon of fish emulsion and water mix, a layer of dirt, followed by a repeated pattern of these materials until it reach at least ¾ of the height of the pallet box or about 3 feet. I then watered the whole mound extensively and left alone.
We then began to add kitchen waste to mound regularly which consisted of all veggie and fruit scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, etc. but never meat or any dairy products. Avoid rats and never compost meat or dairy products. Once a week for the first 2 months I would open up the hinged side and stab at the pile with a steel garden rake. I would then begin an arduous process of trying to turn the pile with a shovel. Within 2 ½ months the compost was ready to harvest but in limited small amounts. The first year of gardening consisted of a lot of trial and error but with the help of Mel Bartholomew’s square good foot gardening book and Jack Spi on the survival podcast and began to learn the best use of this precious material. I began with placement of it around the tomato plants and even began to make some compost tea to help stretch it. Throughout that summer I strained every week to turn the pile and when available place compost where I thought it would do good. I also used compost which was not quite composted in several of the gardens I built that first year. I would typically layer the bottom of a bed with sticks and twigs and place fresh scraps and partially composted material on top and then layer that deep with Mel’s mix of vermiculite, peat moss, dirt from around the property and a hummus & manure mix.
It was not until that second season that I wised up and purchased a pitch fork and the work of turning compost diminished greatly. If you are going to make compost as I have described then the only way to do it well and keep a good attitude is to do it with a pitch fork. Also, by the second year I began to use the compost more wisely and I learned some of the techniques from an Australian gentleman who made a great Google video called backyard permaculture. I link to this 72 minute film in today’s show notes and the entire film is a great educational tool for any gardener. The producer breaks down into easy to understand steps all of the things he and friends did to turn a small barren property into a vibrant food forest through the application of the 12 principles of permaculture. In one part he discusses compost and mentions that it is not necessary to wait for the finished product before use. He explains this is so because compost gives off energy as it is being formed and the finished product mostly consists of material without any extra energy to give off. Sometimes the availability of that energy is vital to plants needing a natural boost. Nature does this in the forests and I do it in my gardens.
Also during that second season I began to make greater use of compost as an amenity to various patches of ground that had become worn. Rather than adding unnatural fertilizer and grass seed to the yards that surround the gardens precious homemade compost has become a regular addition to the soil in the fall and spring. However, we never seem to have enough of it and there are plans for adding to our overall compost production capability.
By the third growing season in 2011 making compost had become second nature to me. It is a rather simple process to manage and maintain and I enjoy the labor involved as a way to warm up for working outside. I’ve learned to use compost in a variety of ways which include soil amenity, mulch, making compost tea and lawn amenity. This year I have added a fifth use of compost to the overall gardening plan and that is composting inside the green room where I start my plants and have been to growing plants all winter.
I often heard of others making compost piles in green houses for added heat in the winter and I decided to try it myself. There is a picture of how I do this in the show notes. The green room is attached to the home but has no heat connection. To compensate for that this year I have added two large garbage cans.
I have not yet concluded if the compost can is making a difference but time will soon tell as the plants begin to fill up the green room. My task now in the midst of this winter in north American season is to continue to add good composting materials to the main compost pile. That’s if for today now go and make some compost.
- What is compost
- Why we make compost
- When to make compost
- How to make compost
- Composting for the Homeowner
- Making Compost from Yard Waste
- Avoid rats and never compost meat or dairy products!
- Backyard Permaculture Video – Awesome video from Australia of turning a small barren piece of land into a mini food forest. This gentleman does a great job of showing that semi finished compost is sometimes better than waiting until it is all black. The composting process is part of what makes incomplete compost agreat garden amenity.
- 12 Principles of Permaculture