Friday, August 31, 2012

Our Compost System

     When I see people throwing food or other compost able items in the trash, it makes me a little nauseous.  One of our most important limited resources carelessly tossed in a bin.  Carted off to be contaminated with unspeakable toxins and locked away forever in a huge rubber suit known as a modern landfill.  Treating our organic materials as trash is a preposterously stupid waste of time, energy, and threatens our future food security.


     We have kept a compost bin, even as apartment dwellers, for some years now.  Lately I have grown more and more conscientious about saving materials.  After trying several different systems, I have sort of settled on the following methods.

     For bins I use 4 wooden pallets with 1 piece of baling wire connecting each of the 4 top corners.  Gravity does the rest as far as keeping things together.  This gives me a roughly 4' square cube which is the ideal size.  Anything less that 3' doesn't have enough mass to really heat up and pasteurize the material.  Anything more than 4' has trouble getting moisture and oxygen inside and gets an anaerobic dead zone in the middle.  They are quick and easy to setup, and when one is full I can wire on 3 more pallets to make the next bin with a shared wall between them.  It is also convenient for unloading as any wall can be removed and the contents shoveled out.


     One very important consideration is shaping the top as it is filled.  If you continuously add materials to the center of the bin, as most of us will tend to do naturally, a water shedding dome will form.  The layers of woven fiber will shed water as effectively as a thatched roof throughout the pile never allowing adequate moisture to the center.  Instead, new materials should be added around the walls of the pile first, so that the top always looks like a bowl instead of a dome.  This will allow the pile to collect moisture and is critical if you want good quality compost without a lot of turning and watering.

     We have a bin up near the house where all of our kitchen scraps go, along with yard waste that is collected nearby.  We started with a 3' ring of 3' tall wire fencing, which worked very well.  We never flipped it or really did anything until it was completely full which took about two years.  Once in a while I would chop at the top with a shovel, but mostly we just kept adding and it kept settling.  On the occasions when too much wet kitchen waste builds up and starts to smell, I simply add some carbon.  Dried leaves, wood chips, straw, and shredded paper work great.  When we did finally remove the wire and empty it, we revealed some of the most beautiful black humus I have ever seen.  We switched to a pallet bin for that pile after a neighbor's dog started digging for goodies, and the pallets did effectively discourage her.  I am guessing that it will be several years before we empty that one.

     In the back yard is our larger composting operation that, so far, is working really well.  We compost all of our yard and garden waste with the exception of diseased or thorny material.  I am also actively searching for biomass on a regular basis for all the crazy ideas that I want to try.  Some of it goes directly into lasagna or hugelkultur beds, but most of it is composted here first.  Sometimes I will go out and find a truckload of manure someplace.  Fortunately, a family friend in the tree removal business brings us dump truck loads of wood chips periodically.  I also collect all of the used grounds from a local coffee house.  I provide them with 5 gallon buckets with lids and pick them up every couple of days.  On occasion I will get a pickup load of menure somewhere as well.


     The two primary ingredients we are generally concerned with in making compost are Carbon and Nitrogen.  The best proportions of those is the subject of much debate, and varies depending on the  application.  So I guess, and do the best I can with the things available for free.  My daily routine involves picking up a bucket or two of used coffee grounds (high in nitrogen), and adding them to the pile.  Then I cover them with wood chips (high in carbon) and a couple scoops of finished compost (activator), always taking care to maintain the bowl shaped top for water retention.

     Using my trusty compost thermometer, I have recorded temperatures as high as 165F using this construcion without any turning or additional watering.  Getting the pile to heat up is important to sterilize weed seeds and pathogens in the soil.   After a year or so I empty the bins, either turning them into a new bin, or using the material on the gardens.  Material being used is generally cleaned using a sift box I made out of some 2x4s and some 1/2" hardware cloth.  It is sized to sit nicely on the wheelbarrow.  The larger pieces go back into whatever bin I am currently filling, and what's left in the wheelbarrow is a wonderful mixture of humus and small bits of leaf mould and such.  The non broken down things around the perimeter and in the corners of the bin get mixed into a new bin as an activator.

     I used to do quite a bit of turning, but that's a lot of work.  I figure you can reduce the year or so it takes a pile to break down by half every time you turn it.  The minimum time seems to be about two weeks, but that's for finely shredded material in ideal conditions that is turned almost daily.  Who needs compost that fast anyway?  As long as I can get it to heat up good at least once, I find I am content to wait.  These days I am much more focused on gathering biomass anyway.  I keep a trash can with a secure lid and a couple of bricks under the bag just behind the pile.  The bricks keep it from blowing away and it is really handy to have nearby for the odd bits of plastic and such that always seem to get into the compost.

     So that's it.  I get some excercise without it being a huge chore, and I don't have to worry about where I am going to get Good clean compost for the next new garden.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Seed Starting Bench

I am really happy about the new seed starting benches that I built.  Since I started saving heirloom seeds, I knew I needed a better seed starting setup than last years folding table.  Luckily we have a nice sun room that works as a makeshift greenhouse in the early spring.  By using the sunlight as much as possible, I can get strong starters with a minimal of supplemental lighting.  So I designed a bench that will hold 8 standard 10"x20" seed starting flats with four in front of each level of our double hung windows.

It is fairly lightweight and cheap to build, using 1x2 framing that can be ripped from any 2x lumber and thin plywood for the walls and shelves
The bottom shelf sits on a box containing an incandescent light fixture, which warms the 4 trays on the bottom shelf.

Here it is in action.  I had to hang the top light from hooks in the cieling, but the bottom fixture hangs neatly from the upper shelf.


Tomatoes and Peppers on the top, flowers on the bottom.


Square Foot Garden #3

Bed #3

The Third square foot bed I made from 4' lengths of 2x8 lumber.  It is finished with a homade finish I found a recepie for online.  It is one part beeswax, and 5 parts mineral oil.  The mixture is gently heated and stirred until mixed, then cooled and applied as a paste.

I cut out the sod, similar to the first one, but this time I used cardboard instead of landscape fabric as a kill layer so that when it breaks down the bed will be connected to the ground and allow worms and such access.

Unfortunately I don't seem to have any pics from 2011, but the box was installed by mid Summer and it performed well.  We had Sweet Peppers (Margaret's), Cherry Tomatoes (Sugar Lump), Basil, and added Garlic (unk softneck)  in the Fall.  Everything did reasonably well.


Here is the bed after spring cleanup.  The emerging garlic is visible on the left side.
Planted with Celery (Giant Pascal), Broccoli (Deciccero), and a couple of cabbages all from starters
I was hoping that the broccoli would blanch the celery.


Added Pepper and Rosemary and sage where plants failed. 

The broccoli bolted in the heat and I cut off the flowers and mulched, hoping that it will start growing again in the cooler fall weather.  The Pepper (Margaret's) is doing really poorly.  Rosemary has not grown at all.

Square Foot Garden #2

Bed #2

The second square foot bed I built I made out of 2x12 pine instead of 2x6.  This time I sanded the wood and treated it with boiled linseed oil for a longer lasting box.  Unfortunately I had the pieces finished before I read the warning on the back of the linseed oil.  Boiled linseed oil contains toxic metal drying agents and is not recommended for use on children's toys or food prep items.  Hardly what I want to grow food on, but since I had it all ready to go, I installed it anyhow and Nikki uses it for cut flowers.


Gladiolus in bloom.

Square Foot Garden #1

     After reading Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, I really wanted to try the technique, and ended up building three 4' x 4' raised boxes near our house with the goal of raising salad greens and other vegetables.  Now that I have been using them for almost 2 full seasons, I am not entirely thrilled with the technique.  Mostly because I am learning about even better ones through permaculture.  Still I am glad to have tried it, and I credit Mel with getting me to think 2 dimentionally instead of just in rows.  I still reccomend the books as a great starting point to learn vegetable gardening, and get a handle on spacing in a grid.

     The three boxes I have, I plan to continue to use and document untill they are replaced with lasagna beds, which greatly outperformed the square foot beds in the extremely hot dry weather this year, and are much less expensive to install.

Bed #1

I wanted to try the technique as simply as possible with this one.  The box is untreated pine 2x6 connected with deck screws.  I cut out the sod, layed down landscape fabric underneath, and filled with Mel's mix, the reccomended mixture of  1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 peat.


Planted with various lettuce, Kale, arugula, cabbage, and Peas (Oregon Sugar Pod)
We did really well, harvesting numerous salads and grazing on the peas.
Made a simple trellise by bending a 10' piece of 1/2 conduit into a u and attaching coated wire fencing.



Unusually warm weather allowed me to get the raised bed successfully planted by late March.
Planted a variety of lettuce, and kale again.  With Peas (Golden Sweet) and a few Celery (Giant Pascal) transplants.
Sorry about the bad date stamp, I was not yet familiar with the camera.

Kale (Blue Curled Scotch)

Celery (Giant Pascal)

Lettuce (May Queen)

Lettuce (Ruby Red)

Spinach (Nobel)

Everything was looking good.  The squirrels would dig in the beds, but they only killed acouple of plants, and I was able to reseed them.

Peas (Golden Sweet) flowering

Peas are growing great!  Everything else was stunted due to high heat and bolted to seed or died without producing anything edible.

The only thing we got out of this bed so far was a boatload of peas.  Here is the bed after i ripped out everything, mulched with woodchips, and planted Bush Beans (Brittle Wax)

The beans that germinated are doing really well, filled in the gaps with more seed.



The beans that germinated first are producing reasonably well.

One of the Beans found the trellis and reverted to climbing.

A Journey to Permaculture

I can still remember sitting in Nikki's tiny apartment, years ago before we were married, sitting in a ray of sunshine reading her grandfather's copy of Rodale's The Complete Book of Composting on a quiet, perfect afternoon.  Something clicked inside me that day, as I learned about the incredible symphony of diverse life transforming waste into humus in Nature's perfect recycling system.  That was the day that sent me on this path of endless composting and garden tinkering. 
It is amazing how an idea can reach out and change your world.  I feel the need to start this blog off with a list of the books that have helped shape my views and understanding.  The more I learn, the more I understand how much I don't know.  Here are the ideas that have helped guide me from a person with a mild interest in plants, to aspiring permaculturist.

Top Book Recommendations

The Complete Book of Composting, by J Rodale and staff
Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
Carrots Love Tomatoes & Roses Love Garlic by Louise Riotte
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham
Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof
Let it Rot by Stu Campbell
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison

Permaculture, A Designer's Manual by Bill Mollison
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture by Sepp Holzer
The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
The Passive Solar Construction Handbook by Steven Winter Associates Inc.
The Earth Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book by Mike Oehler
The $50 and up underground house book by Mike Oehler
You Can Farm by Joel Salatin
Seed To Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Food Rules by Michael Pollan

Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemmenway