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Sunday, July 07, 2002

No-heap composting

As the winter rains subside slowly across the coastal and inland valley landscape, and days are sunny but nights still cool, my neighbors pile up accumulated garden and yard debris, leaving it for a few weeks, perhaps under a plastic tarp. As soon as it's dry enough out, but not dry enough to get them in trouble with the fire warden, they torch off the lot. From a mountain top nearby, one can see this activity as a a kind of Civil War reenactment, with the smoke of the guns drifting from various parts of the field. Filbert farmers are prone to set off a lot of piles at once, so that their places look like some corner of of the battle of Shiloh.

When I first began to accumulate such material here, I started to build such a pile, but then remembered reading a book by a maverick Japanese organic farmer. He said that he had no way to fertilize a hillside orchard until he hit upon the idea of gathering wood and spreading it around on the slopes to rot. His trees thrived. We've begun to emulate that basic idea.

Since we still use wood heat, I do try to saw up larger branches for the woodpile. The natives are ash and oak, so the smaller branches are useful for the small barbecue pit we inherited with the place. Finger-sized trimmings of oak, ash, bigleaf maple, blackcherry, and cottonwood go into low places on the land, to help build soil. When there is a lamb, much of this goes to stock feed -- cottonwood is a favorite -- as does the abundant Japanese knotweed festooned with morning glories.

Himalaya blackberry, our region's equivalent of kudzu, I leave where it drops when cut. The lawnmower will eventually chip up the drying stems. Some of them I use for bushing peas, which works surprisingly well.

We have let too much mint grow in too many of the beds, and what we can't use we pull -- and stack around the feet of the fruit trees for mulch. Old squash vines, sunflower stems, hollyhocks, zinnias, cornstalks, "mother" strawberries, and old-growth chard or broccoli plants I chop up with a machete and leave in place to be mowed and perhaps eventually tilled in. Sods pulled up from the garden, along with cat's ear, I also throw into the garden or under the trees, if they haven't gone to seed, and of course all the kitchen stuff goes there.

We save our dish water, add it to some other choice "household wastewater," and feed this to fruit trees, grape vines, and flower beds. After we've done the woodcutting for the year, the driveway accumulates a layer of sawdust and chips too small for gathering up for the woodstove and too acid for the garden. This material is gathered up with a square point shovel and wheelbarrow, and added to the "low spots."

With all this activity, we find there's nothing left over that belongs in a bonfire, so we've never had to have one. In fact, we import whatever we can get. buys buys tremendous bales of straw at two dollars apiece, each weighing about the same as the Titanic, and huffs them up to the barn to spread around under the bottoms of the ducks and rabbits.

We fight over the resulting mulch/fertilizer, but I generally lose as I haven't the moral advantage of having hauled the bales. In November of every year, I scout around for bags of leaves left curbside. Last year I brought home some twenty-five of these.

Some of the bags were big-leaf maple, which is said to be a no-no in the vegetable garden, but they're fine for the "low spots" and around rhododendrons and the like. Some were oak, which can be sweetened with rock lime and used wherever you like. Some were more of a beechy-sweetgum kind of thing, and these were sheet-composted right out onto the garden and turned under with the hay-fork "rototiller" in the spring.

This seems to work so well that I question the usefulness of a compost heap. By the time the pile, of whatever humongous size at first, cooks down, there's so little of it that it has to be rationed to the neediest (usually tomatoes), and the rest go hungry.

If I could afford to, I'd get a chipper. This produces a very democratic product which can be spread around evenly, promoting soil health and microorganism and worm activity throughout the whole area -- can be put on anytime, anywhere, in plant pots, on raised beds, around azaleas, fruit trees, or even the lawn.

At a commune in Georgia, where I was the truck farmer and bakery woman, I set up a bin behind the bakery, made of three sheets of metal roofing, and while waiting for the seventy-five pound lump of bread to rise indoors, shoveled whatever I could find into a big shredder outdoors. Sawdust, mule (yes, mule) manure, kitchen wastes, grass clippings, and whole piles of cleared vegetation, including a half-acre of high-nitrogen kudzu, went into the machine, in alternating batches, so that there'd be an even mix in the bin. As soon as the bin was full, I added another one, and when that one was full, I added another. The half-acre garden, which had been in ryegrass over the winter, I tilled in, and after the crops got high enough to mulch, I sheeted the whole area with the contents of the bins. The chippings served as compost, mulch, and pathway alike.

We would show visitors the garden, and on learning that it was organic, they would invariably ask where the compost heap was. "You're looking at it." We never bought fertilizer, except for some organic mixes for the nursery, where a more controlled acidity was called for.

I remember the nurseryman, now a famous organic truck farmer who lives in this area, did sometimes have to fight white flies, the bane of greenhouse operations whether organic or not. He set off pungent smoke bombs that were very effective. I asked what was in them. He grinned. "Nicotine. The stuff's an organic insecticide, invented by tobacco plants to kill any bugs that try to eat the leaves."

This gave me an idea. I bought a pouch of chewing tobacco (which raised a few eyebrows in the store), and make a pomade of chewing tobacco, chips left over from old soap bars, and rabbit manure, all tied up in a cheesecloth, and left the "teabag" in the watering can overnight. The resulting tea fed plants yet insulted bugs effectively, and could be used in the greenhouse, on flower beds, and throughout the young garden, though I avoided the foliage of lettuce and the like slated to be brought in to the kitchen.

You can put a similar mix into a hose-end sprayer, but it doesn't seem to me that the resulting dilution, even at the highest ratio, has enough kick. Just keep the solution making daily in the watering can, and use it wherever it's needed most. I leave the can in the greenhouse, where the heat from the sun during the day and radiating back from the brick floor at night can"solarize" the tea. The warmth seems to be preferred by the plants over cold water, and I would do this routine of leaving the water in the can overnight even if didn't have the teabag in it. Once you've made yourself responsible to a lot of plants, every good habit helps.


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