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Garden in late winter with compost piles as part of the rotation.

Garden in late winter with compost piles as part of the rotation.

For many years I had compost bins lined up on the edge of my garden. Discussion about compost generally included what kind of bins I used and where I sourced the materials to put in them. My bins were made from pallets I acquired for free. Each of three sides was made by pounding two t-posts into the ground and sliding a pallet over them. If one side needed to be replaced, that could be easily done, since the sides weren’t tied or nailed together. The fourth side was made by using bungee cords to hold it in place. To remove the compost, I released that side by removing the bungee cords.

The ingredients of those piles were usually animal bedding (from our animals or some I brought in from other places), leaves (from here or elsewhere), food scraps from our table, and maybe grass clippings. The compost bin was a handy place to toss garden residue—weeds and spent plants. Gradually I stopped including outside materials in my compost as I studied GROW BIONTENSIVE (GB) methods and produced more of my own compost biomass in my garden. The bulk of the material I used to bring in was for the carbon. With GB I grew more grains and corn, using the straw and stalks for carbon. Eventually, all the compost materials were coming from my own garden.

Butternut squash growing around and over the compost pile.

Butternut squash growing around and over the compost pile.

Rethinking the materials is only part of rethinking compost piles. If you are into tidy, and think compost requires a bin, you may have a hard time thinking outside that, but I urge you to try. Besides keeping them tidy, bins serve to keep animals out of your piles. If you include food scraps in your piles and have a dog, or neighborhood dogs frequent your place, you may want a bin. However, if your compost pile is within your fenced garden, you have already fenced out the critters. Once I put a fence around the garden I did away with the bins, but the piles were still on the edge of the garden space. It was when butternut squash grew wild around and over my pile one year that I began to think about the nutrients that were leaching into the ground each year beneath the piles and not being used.

Having to walk back and forth to the edge of the garden to put compost materials there that had grown in the garden, or to retrieve compost for the beds, also served to nudge me into planning to have my compost piles as part of my garden rotation. By the way, I did away with the notion that compost needed to be turned regularly long ago. Left to what they do best and the microbes turn all that organic matter into finished compost all by themselves. I do water occasionally to keep them hydrated.

Now I devote a garden bed, actually more than one, to compost. On my garden map, compost is shown, just as all the crops for the year are. The two biggest times for starting a new pile for me are in June when the grains are harvested and in October when the cornstalks, sweet potato, and peanuts are harvested. It is in October when the new compost bed is put to use. Whatever bed is designated to store compost for the coming year is where I start the new pile in October. The pile I created in the summer that needs more time to cure will be moved to this new compost bed. That is the only time it gets turned. If the new compost bed is part of the garden rotation it will be located next to the old compost bed, making the transition an easy one. You do not want to do any long distance hauling—just fork it from one bed to the next.

numbered compost piles

numbered compost piles

The rest of the compost in that bed, including the one started the previous October, should be ready to spread, which I do in September and October before I plant cover crops. Throughout the year there will be other materials added to the piles as weeding and harvesting is done. There will also be finished compost available to add to beds each time a new crop goes in. By following GB guidelines and having at least 60% of the garden devoted to compost crops for the year, it is easy to have an abundance of compost. To keep track of the order the piles were made, so I know which will be ready to use next and which needs to set longer, I use old smooth metal fence posts (the kind used for electric fence) with blocks of wood on top with a number painted on them. Some people have little signs for their piles that say such things as “use me”, “feed me”, or “working.” The pile that I make in the fall will not be ready to use until the next fall. Wanting to make the best use of all my resources, including space and available nutrients, I plant butternut squash around the base of that pile and let the plants grow over it. Besides soaking up nutrients from beneath, the plants shade the pile, preventing weeds from moving in. By the time the winter squash is harvested, the compost is ready to spread.

In October I plant winter rye in the bed that the compost vacated. That cover crop soaks up all the nutrients that may have leached from the piles and gives them to the corn that will go into that bed the following year. When the rye is shedding pollen (about May 7 here in Zone 7), I cut it with a sickle and leave it lie in the bed as mulch. Two weeks later I transplant corn into the mulch. Generally there is a small amount of a legume, such as Austrian winter peas, sown and harvested with the rye. I have my best crop of corn in the bed that follows the compost.

This might all seem confusing, but if you take time to think it through, it will become clear. In Grow a Sustainable Diet I explain GROW BIOINTENSIVE methods and how to plan to have 60% of your garden in cover crops for the year. In that book I also have a garden map and explanation for the Garden of Ideas that shows compost as part of the garden rotation. My DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows compost making in the beds and the management of the cover crops with hand tools through the growing season. Think outside the compost bin and make compost an integral part of your garden!Homeplace Earth

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Beware of bringing outside inputs into your garden!  I began to hear about problems with persistent herbicides in compost that were causing crop damages when gardeners applied it to their gardens in 2001.  It used to be that good organic gardeners gleaned compost materials from everywhere they could.  They took in leaves and grass clippings from their neighbors and gladly hauled stable bedding from wherever they could find it.  Even if these materials had been produced by conventional methods, rather than organic ones, it was thought that whatever residual chemicals might be left would break down in the composting process.  Not anymore.

There is a 21st century problem of herbicides that can survive the composting process and still be active enough to cause herbicide damage on your vegetables.  These herbicides target broadleaf plants and are used to produce weed-free lawns and weed-free hay and grain.  If you used grass clippings or hay and straw from treated areas as mulch, you could find yourself with herbicide damage to your garden.  Furthermore, if an animal ate the hay from a treated field and the manure was composted, that compost would still contain the active herbicide.

The first chemical I heard about was clopyralid, marketed by Dow AgroSciences.  By 2004, the label had been changed to try to keep the clippings from treated turf out of the compost stream.  Until 2007 I was reading about places far from my home.  Then the September 2007 issue of Growing for Market published the article Contaminated hay ruins crops.  The folks at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, VA had experienced herbicide damage on their tomatoes and squash as a result of applying hay as mulch.  They had bought second quality hay, as usual, from a farmer they’d been dealing with for five years.  Unfortunately, that farmer had begun using an herbicide containing picloram on the fields he cut.  The herbicide salesman did the application and the farmer never saw the label, which stated not to use the hay from a treated field as mulch.  At that time, September 2007, we were deep into working on our video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.  I had long since stopped using outside sources for compost and mulch materials as I concentrated on GROW BIOINTENSIVE  methods.

cover crops in winter

cover crops in winter

If I did not already have that knowledge of how to use cover crops, I would have felt completely helpless.  I was very sad to learn what happened at Waterpenny, knowing it would also be happening to countless others.  On the other hand, our new video would show people how to raise their own compost and mulch materials as part of building their soil fertility.  I was happy to be able to offer a solution.

For some updated research for this post, I headed to the library at the Western Campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College where I used to teach.  That library has the best selection of sustainable ag books I have ever seen.  It also has BioCycle magazine.  Sure enough, the June 2011 issue of BioCycle had the article  Dupont Label Says “Do Not Compost” Grass Clippings  by Dan Sullivan.  It seems that this problem is never-ending.  DuPont now has the herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor which has been marketed as Imprelis to the landscape industry–people who need a pesticide license to apply it.  However, Scotts is going to be adding it to a product for homeowners– people who don’t have a pesticide applicator license.  Watch for it in some of the Scotts Miracle-Gro weed control products in a garden center or big box store near you!  Aminocyclopyrachlor will replace 2,4-D and atrazine in these products.  Just two weeks ago, Barbara Pleasant wrote about aminocyclopyrachlor for Mother Earth News at http://www.motherearthnews.com/grow-it/imprelis-killer-compost-zb0z11zrog.aspx, including problems of Imprelis with trees and shrubs.

These companies know of the damage that can occur when these chemicals persist through composting and end up in your garden.  They feel they are doing their part to keep them out of your gardens by including on the label instructions to not use what is taken off the fields or landscapes in compost or as mulch.  In the real world, however, these things DO end up as compost or mulch.  To protect yourself you would have to be able to go to the farmer and ask what has been applied to the field and search the label yourself.  The feed store that you get your hay and straw from may have run out of their local supply and brought some in from far away.  The place you got that truckload of compost from may have many input sources.  Good luck!  If you already have a problem with contaminated soil, learn all you can.  You will have to play a waiting game for a few years for the herbicide to no longer be effective, but you can grow grass there.  Barbara Pleasant reports a way to test for these chemicals by soaking the materials and using the water on pots of beans at http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/simple-compost-test.aspx.  For more information on this issue, google  “killer compost”.

You could forget about those other sources and only use what you grow yourself.  Besides, bringing materials from outside your boundaries depletes the soil where they are grown.  What is going to feed back that area?  We have to look at the whole picture–the complete cycle.

make compost IN your garden

My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden takes you from March through November in my garden and shows you how to manage those crops using only hand tools. My video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan those crops into your rotation.  Choosing the right crops and planting and harvesting them at the right time takes some practice.  My blog will give you help along the way with posts such as Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed and Grains in Your Garden.

It appears there will be persistent herbicides with us for quite awhile.  Rather than try to learn the chemical names and the products they are used in, it is best to avoid any herbicide use altogether.  Think of your property as one living organism.  Whatever is done to one bit of it affects the rest.  Learn to manage your soil fertility with cover crops and you and your garden will be much healthier.   Happy cover cropping! 

 

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