Tuesday, August 21, 2012

No Soil, No Veggies

It's always been an interest of mine to see what other people do on their land, including design, functionality,  Then I come back and look at my piece. I used to get a little depressed about our gravel-laden, mossy, weedy yard. (That's it there to the left) Then I turned my thinking around to realize the potential it has. I certainly don't need to worry about drainage! I don't need to worry about putting a shovel into it and coming up with construction trash (like our last home). I can do whatever I want with our piece of land...mostly. Because the front yard is where the septic tanks and weeping field is, I'm going to plant most of our vegetables in the back. It's logical, larger and by growing crops in the back, I'm not tempting Murphy (of Murphy's Law fame).

My first issue to address in the back is the soil. As far as I know, there is only one way to grow anything in this soil, and that's to amend it. Many of you know I am a big fan of organic gardening and farming. Some of you know I believe whole heartedly in growing food and not grass. I know we have the potential here to grow a butt-ton of food, using a combination of square-foot and bio-intensive methods. But first things first, something has to be done with the soil.

We have two composters here on the property, and they get used, tended and mixed quite often. One of them had sat in the same location for a couple of years until just recently. When I moved it, I was happy to see that there was enough finished compost for me to use in a few spots around the yard. Those spots will be herb beds next year. (With what remains of this growing season, I will be focusing on building garden beds, growing herbs and lettuce indoors and of course, soil improvement.) The composter that I moved had a lot of wet items in it, what the composting gurus call "green" matter, but it wasn't real high in "brown" stuff. Before I confuse you, let me explain.

What you put into your composter has a lot of influence on  how quickly  the raw materials break down, as does the size of these items. If you fill your composter with only sticks and dry leaves, they're going to take longer to break down. The same can be said of vegetable trimmings. The trick is find the right ratio. The organisms that do the work in a composter need four things to work properly; carbon (this is where dry plant matter comes into play such as small broken up twigs, dry leaves and straw), nitrogen (in order to make new and more of the aforementioned organisms to oxidize that carbon), oxygen to help decomposition, and water (to help maintain organisms without giving too much moisture and creating a stinky situation). Now, if you remember that fresh, juicy, wet materials are usually "green", it gets easy to think of "green" compostables. Apple cores, grass cuttings, banana peels, feathers, manure, tea leaves, potato peelings, watermelon rind, coffee grounds and so on. All of these are high in nitrogen as well. Now the "brown" ingredients are easier to identify as well. Dry leaves, shredded corn stalks and cobs, wood chips, small sticks, grass cuttings that have dried on the lawn, peanut shells, straw, bedding from all kinds of animals from gerbils to horses ... you get the idea, right? Remember, the smaller the pieces you put in, the faster it will all break down. I've heard of a lot of people acquiring worms and dumping them into the compost pile. Proponents of vermiculture say there is only one kind of worms to use, and that's the red wiggler. I don't know this for sure myself, but I know that it's now possible to order them through the internet! Google is so useful...

So, compost is a key element of organic soil amendment. No matter how much I want to hurry it along, it takes time. Depending on the style of your composter and what you put in it, and how often it's mixed; it can take either months or weeks to get finished compost. Or so the experts say. I've never had compost in weeks. Apparently if one has a tumbler style composter (this one looks like a barrel with a handle), the drum can be rotated every week or so and therefore better mixed. There are composters that look like a drum that gets narrower at the top. I've never been able to see why this design is better than any other, but if you ever get the opportunity to go look at composters for sale, this may be the most common design. Another design is the three bin system, with each bin holding progressively more completed compost. I have never tried this style, but with six of us in the house, I am faced with the possibility of making a three bin system soon! I think design comes down to the preference of the person composting. What's more important is rebuilding the soil, and giving back to the planet instead of taking away.

So what's in your composter, you might be asking me... We eat a lot of fruit and veggies here, and the fresher the better. So we have a lot of vegetable trimmings. Potato peels, watermelon rind, cucumber trimmings, and beet ends Small twigs and dry leaves from my ongoing battle to not let the forest take back our property, dried straw, and coffee grounds. This week I'm hoping to acquire a source of goat and chicken manure that I can mix into the composter as well. Before you start wondering about the smell, let me assure you that if a composter is managed correctly, there is no smell. I had a 5 gallon bucket that I had put small holes into at my former home, an apartment, that I put all our kitchen waste into, as well as dried leaves and sticks and some small amounts of soil from a local ravine. (The soil came with the dried leaf matter on the shovel. I wasn't digging holes in the ravine, in case you wondered) As long as I was conscious of the ingredients of my bucket, and kept an eye on things, (or should that be nose?), and kicked the round bucket around the yard to mix it all up my neighbors never smelled a thing. In fact, many didn't believe me until I showed them the compost.

So, to wrap up, compost is the first step to any soil amendment, and definitely my starting point. It's not as overwhelming as it first seems when you break it all down. Pardon the pun. Plants are better off for the time and effort put into compost, the soil will be richer for it, and in the end, the vegetables grown with it will be all the healthier for it.
Do you have a composter? If you do, what style do you have? Is it a barrel or three bin system? What do you put into yours? If you don't have a composter right now, is this something you plan on doing?
Let me know in the comments section; I love learning what everyone else is doing!

2 comments:

Jacquelineand.... said...

We currently have a compost 'pile' rather than something more formal since we'll be leaving here in a couple of years. When we move then we'll be using the 3 bin system; it seems the most practical. Everything suitable goes on the pile although I can only wish we had a source of organic manure!

Btw, did you know you can make very tasty pickles from watermelon rinds? Really, you should give it a try sometime!

Very well-written with useful information. Btw, are you keeping a visual and written record? Mother Earth News pays well for homesteading stories...just sayin'.

Leigh said...

Excellent post. I so agree that the soil is the first order of business. We had a soil analysis done and discovered our soil is lacking in minerals as well, so I've been adding dolomitic limestone and bone meal to bed as I plant. Since we do have chickens and goats, they get almost all the food scraps. That way I'm composting barn cleanings (straw, hay, and manure) without much food scraps. What they can't eat (coffee grounds and tea bags, etc) goes to the compost worms. We still don't have it all figured out, but like you, at least we're trying to head in the right direction.