Archive for the ‘Composting’ Category

Gardeners often spend a fortune on fertilizers during the season to keep plants healthy and well fed. Yet some of us leave the soil unattended in the winter and early spring only to start the cycle all over again.

Crimson Clover patch

Plant cover crops like clover to put nitrogen back in your soil!

A few years back, I became a fan of cover crops to add nitrogen and to keep soils active and healthy during the normally “fallow” season. (Note that I live in an area of California where our growing season is almost year-round. However, there are certain green manures, such as hairy vetch and rye, that are suitable for colder climates, provided they are planted early enough before the winter.) As I was spreading some clover I got to thinking about the cost of cover crops vs fertilizers. The numbers shocked me.

Comparison of fertilizers vs cover crops:

Fertilizer Price Nitrogen Extra Info Price/lb N
Berseem Clover $8/lb seed 125 lb nitrogen/acre 30 lb/acre $1.92/lb
Banner Fava $6/lb seed 150 lb nitrogen/acre 200 lb/acre $8.00/lb
Common Vetch $8/lb seed 110 lb nitrogen/acre 90 lb/acre $6,54/lb
Blood Meal $2/lb 12% none $16.67/lb

Table disclaimer: these figures were taken from a variety of sources that are all subject to some scrutiny. Territorial Seed Company publishes information on cover crops in their catalogs and how much you end up paying for any of the items can vary drastically and how much REAL nitrogen you get from a crop can also vary significantly.

That said, unless your Clover does VERY poorly, you are going to get better results since it is 20 times less expensive with conservative numbers. We purchased Crimson Clover for $1.5 /lb by purchasing 10lbs. Plug in those numbers and we could be paying $0.36/lb of nitrogen.

One important thing to note is that you should choose your cover crops carefully. According to this article in Organic Gardening, some cover crops like rye are allelopathic, meaning that they suppress the growth of neighboring plants. And it’s also important to wait 2-3 wks after turning under your cover crop to make sure that the nitrogen will be available for your veggies.

And now for the punch line: Now I understand the lyrics to “Crimson and Clover”: you are supposed to plant it OVER and OVER! Who woudda known Joan Jett was a gardener! ūüėČ

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Maybe it was the temp of 160F or the ammonia gas, but somehow I got the notion that I could cook in the compost bin and had to figure out IF and HOW I could pull it off.

How to get compost pile hot:

A hot compost pile is a delicate balance, and sometimes a freak accident, which is how I got this foolish notion of using it to cook food. It is the combination of ingredients, moisture, mass and air.

  • Ingredients: Entire books are written about the ingredients and ratios for compost. For hot composting, it takes lots of finely-chopped greens. I get a garbage can of grass clippings each week when Odilon, our friendly neighborhood gardener, happily disposes of our neighbors’ grass clippings into our compost bin. Grass is a nitrogen-rich “green” ingredient has to be mixed well with compost “browns” like dried leaves, wood chips, straw (preferably chopped). I have gotten very hot compost with materials like straw bedding from sheep, and mushroom compost (which is woodchip mixture used for growing mushrooms). I keep browns on the side and mix in.
  • Moisture: A balancing act between too wet and too dry. It should be damp. If you grab a handful, you should be able to squeeze a little water out. Others describe it as a damp wash cloth.
  • Mass: A small pile will never be able to get hot. I have gotten hot compost with as little as 2/3 of a cubic yard (3ft x 3ft x 2ft) This is enclosed in a bin which also helps retain the heat.
  • Air: Straw and wood chips also help form air pockets and keep the grass from matting up. Then I turn my pile from either twice a week or every other day to get more air mixed back in. To get hot, your compost pile needs a few days to sit and build up heat.

Why to NOT make compost that hot!

While having a compost pile at 160F/71C is good if you want to cook a meal, it is not as good if you want to use it for your garden. Somewhere above 130F you will start to smell ammonia. This is your compost pile releasing nitrogen into the air. But you want nitrogen in your garden, not in your disgusted SO’s nostrils! When I am not cooking dinner, I add dirt to my compost pile which helps absorb the ammonia and regulates the temp down to 120F. In his book “Gardening When It Counts” Steve Solomon has an excellent discussion on composting, and how dirt acts like the cooling rods in a nuclear reactor to control the process. He recommends compost piles to be about 5% dirt, and I probably end up at this amount when I keep adding dirt to cool it down.

What else could you do with compost at 160 degrees?

Beleive it or not, there are REAL trials being run on how to use compost heat being used on a farm. It’s a large PDF file to download, but really worth reading and very educational.

There were many other questions about this video that were asked on Twitter. If you want me to go into more details on other parts of the process, please add a comment and I’ll be happy to answer your questions, including (heaven forbid) post the recipe.

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Not-Too-Hairy Compost

It’s been a tough holiday for Roy.¬† A bad cold, an unshaven face, thick, wirey,¬†gray hair, and a wide-eyed son tentatively squinting up at him.

“Dad, is that you?”

Time for the shears.¬† And don’t forget to sprinkle the hair clippings in the compost.

More gray than last time but still compostable

Yes, you can compost hair clippings!

That’s right.¬† Hair is¬†mostly¬†made of nitrogen- rich¬†keratin, which have long chains of amino acids.¬† And while some Gardenweb comments were valid (not to mention amusing) regarding the use of hair as fertilizer, we’ve had no problems as the relatively short hair clippings are a minor “ingredient” in our compost bin.¬† Hair decomposes very slowly – which is a desireable attribute for something that is nitrogen-rich.

In rural areas, some people have used human and pet hair successfully to ward off deer and varmint by scattering them liberally on the perimeter of their gardens.  However, this tactic is not likely to deter animals like racoons that live close to humans in urban areas.

Don’t start collecting garbage bags full of hair from salons or barbers as they may contain garden-unfriendly chemicals (gels, sprays, etc.).¬† Also, it’s best to keep more unusual compost ingredients as minor additions to your bin.

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Is there an uncrabby crab?

Is there an uncrabby crab?

Stories of how Native Americans buried fish in their maize fields to fertilize their soil go way back to grade school.  Funny how it all came back when we decided to do the same with fish and crabs we buy at the local harbor.  We once bought a whole halibut, fileted this giant on the driveway, and then buried the remains over a foot deep in our garden.

Our dungeness crab season opened up in Nov. and we’ve had several feasts over the past month.¬† We bury the shells and inedible parts a foot deep in the garden, chop it up and work it into the soil, clean up the shovel, and then put fresh soil at least 6 inches above the crab compost lest racoons and other critters should make out the scent.

Fresh dungeness crabs off Bill's boat

Fresh dungeness crabs off Bill's boat

In 3-6 months, the crab shells, composed primarily of calcium carbonate, nitrogen-rich proteins, and chitin (a cellulose with nitrogen groups) will be transformed into a nutrient-rich white powder.¬† Every now and then, we’ll see a tenacious claw, but even that will eventually soften and decompose!

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Coffee grounds OK in moderation

Coffee grounds OK in moderation

We recently had a discussion in the Plangarden forum about throwing coffee grounds in the compost.¬† One of our users from CA gets 10 lbs/wk of coffee grounds from Starbucks for her compost.¬† Starbucks pro and con issues aside, let’s just say that we’re happy to hear about this.

We’ve used coffee grounds (and loose tea) for decades. Sometimes we dig holes in the ground and let them go to work in the soil.¬† Most the time we add them to compost, either vegetable compost or worm bin (vermiculture).

With that said, don’t get the idea you should start hauling tons of coffee grounds into your garden compost.¬† Coffee is acidic and if you have acidic soil already or you added all the local Starbucks for years, you could end up with soil that would grow blueberries, potatoes, roses, and other acid-soil-loving plants, but not much else.

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