Friday, 18 December 2015 11:03

Composting

Why Compost?

"Composting is a giant step toward recycling wastes, conserving precious energy reserves, and regaining control of our food supplies.” ~ Rodale Book of Composting

Creating a compost pile is one of the best investments you can make in your garden. Composting is the keystone to a successful, sustainable organic garden. Rather than sending your garden wastes to the landfill and spending upwards of $50 a year on fertilizers, your compost pile allows you to invest your precious plant materials in your own garden and to produce soil you’ve only dreamed of.

Compost will:

  • Add organic matter naturally
  • Prevent plant and soil diseases
  • Correct sandy or clay soil structure
  • Make a great mulch or top dressing
  • Provide a variety of nutrients when plants need them
  • Aerate soil
  • Improve Drainage
  • Prevent erosion
  • Neutralize toxins
  • Recycle garden and kitchen wastes

Building a Pile

As our favorite bumper sticker says, “Compost Happens.” If you put organic material in a pile, it will eventually break down to composted matter. However, there are many ways to control this magical process through the size and shape of the pile and the various materials added to it. You can have a “cold pile,” to which you add materials, such as kitchen scraps, on an ongoing basis. This pile will compost rather slowly (1-2 years).

The faster route requires the creation of a “hot pile”, which should reach temperatures of 140° F. This pile is created with all the materials it will need, so by adding water and turning it regularly, you can help this pile finish composting within 6-8 months. All healthy compost piles require the following:

Browns - "Browns" are dry materials such as leaves or straw that provide carbon. Browns should compose roughly one-half of your pile (by volume).

Greens - "Greens" are green materials such as grass or freshly pulled plants from your garden that provide nitrogen. Greens should compose roughly one-half of your pile (by volume).

Water - The organisms in your compost pile need a moist environment to live in, especially in our desert climate. The inside of your pile should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Air - Turning your pile adds air to the mix. Organisms in the pile need a source of oxygen if they are going to thrive.

Build Your Pile!

Loosen the soil with a digging fork or shovel where you intend to build pile/have bin.

As a bottom layer add thick materials such as sunflower stalks or sticks. This improves aeration and creates an open invitation for decomposers to start working!

Chop up browns and greens to 1”-2” pieces for faster decomposition.

Mix a bit of greens and browns with little bit of water and add to bin, keep adding until pile is at least 3ft x 3ft x3ft.

When finished, your initial pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge.

Turn every three days to keep a hot pile and add oxygen (may need to add water)

Watch as compost happens!

Your pile is finished when it won’t heat up, resembles soil & smells good!

Let the compost cure for 1-6 months before applying to your garden.

Choices

There are a few different ways to shape your composting process. A gardener’s choice of composting method should be convenient and reflect personal preference and aesthetics. Your home pile can be contained in a bin made of wood or plastic. Some people even use wire cages. Home gardeners may opt for composting underground through sheet-composting, where plant material is buried under soil for a few months.

Tips

As mentioned above, a moist pile is crucial for composting in Utah – water may be needed daily in hot weather.

The finished product, called humus (HUE-mis), is a dark, rich soil that is cake-like when you pick it up in your hands. Some studies suggest that uncured or partially-cured compost (3-9 weeks old) is not nearly as helpful for soil as fully cured compost.

The more often you turn your pile, the faster it will produce finished compost.

A compost pile should not smell bad. If your pile smells, it is probably too wet or the carbon to nitrogen ratio is off. The carbon to nitrogen ratio should be anywhere from 25:1 to 40:1 (the ratio of "greens to browns").

Don't add weeds such as bindweed or others that have gone to seed unless your pile is hot enough for long enough. 5+ days, to sterilize the seeds or spreading rhizomes (140° F).

While most manures are a great source of nitrogen for your pile, don't add wastes from carnivorous animals (cats, dogs, humans), because they may contain harmful bacteria.

If you compost at home, do not use meat, dairy, or oily foods. Food wastes of this type can attract rodents and should be deposited in closed composting containers.

Compost Organisms

Many different kinds of organisms work together to make compost happen, the types of decomposers you find within your pile will vary according to its stage of decomposition. These stages may be measured by temperature. Below 55° F, most microbes will be dormant. The microbes existing between 55-70° F are called psychrophiles, which burn carbon and raise the temperature of the pile, making way for mesophiles, which thrive at temperatures of 70-90° F. Mesophiles are the “work horses” of the pile, consuming everything in sight which raises the temperature of the pile to over 100° F. Between 90-200° F, thermophiles take over, producing humic acid which improves soil structure, raises temperatures, and brings the pile to a finished state.

Microscopic Decomposers (the ones you can't see) include: bacteria, actinomycetes, protozoa and fungi.

Physical Decomposers: (look carefully for these): mites, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, spiders, springtails, beetles, ants, nematodes, flatworms, rotifers, earthworms, snails, slugs and flies.

Vermicomposting

If you do not have space to create a compost pile outside, don’t worry! You can compost indoors using red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida). All you need is a lidded container with holes drilled in the top and sides for proper aeration. It is also recommended that you drill holes in the bottom for drainage. The worms will require bedding (such as newspaper), and food from your kitchen. Remember to avoid meat, dairy, bread products, oily and citrus foods.

Published in Organic Gardening
Friday, 18 December 2015 11:03

Cover Crops

Why use cover crops?

Have you been looking for ways to improve your soil's fertility and tilth? How about methods for suppressing weeds or retaining moisture? What about attracting those elusive beneficial insects? Your solutions may be found in cover cropping - a time-tested method for managing healthy gardens. Using cover crops can:

  • Protect soil in winter months
  • Attract beneficial insects
  • Break up clay or hardpan
  • Increase nutrients in your soil
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Suppress weeds
  • Cover & protect unused areas
  • Prevent erosion by wind and rain
  • Increase organic matter in your soil
  • Recycle garden nutrients

What is a cover crop?

Also referred to by some experts as ‘green manures,’ cover crops are any type of planting that covers your soil when it is not being used for active production. Cover crops can be tilled under or harvested and composted to add organic matter and nutrients to your soil. Although cover cropping has traditionally been used by farmers for maintaining healthy soil, many home and urban gardeners are using the same techniques on a smaller scale.

A good gardener recognizes that successful gardening is dependent on the soil. Many amendments may be employed to improve soil tilth and fertility, including compost, leaves, manure or grass clippings. Using cover crops is also an excellent option for soil improvement because other amendments may difficult to come by, and you can produce cover crops on your own space. When properly incorporated with your yearly garden plan, cover crops provide the added benefits of conserving moisture, increasing life in the soil, and even attracting beneficial insects to your garden.

Using the right cover crop

Although at first it may seem challenging to understand all of the different kinds of cover crops and their benefits, the beauty of using cover crops is that you can select just the right plant for your soil, climate and long-term plans. By learning about the benefits and cultural requirements of each crop, you will be able to make an informed decision for you and your garden.

Cover crops can be divided into three main categories:

  • Legumes – Legumes are a favorite cover crop because they fix nitrogen in your soil. Some legumes have large taproots that go deep into the soil and ‘mine’ nutrients from below. The legume family includes: clovers, vetch, alfalfa, fava beans, Austrian winter peas, medic, and soybeans. Legumes
tend to do better in cooler climates, and are suited to spring and fall plantings.
  • Cereals – Cereal plants are usually quick-growing. They make great green manures because they are easily harvested and composted, or tilled under, providing a great source for nitrogen and organic matter. Cereals include: annual rye, wheat, oats, ryegrass, barley, sorghum and sudangrass.
  • Broadleaf Plants – Broadleaf plants include : buckwheat, rape, mustard, turnips, daikon radish, and oilseed radish. These plants tend to shade out competitive weeds. Buckwheat is very fast growing and comes right up in hot weather. The brassicas (rape, mustard, turnip/radish) tend to have
taproots that can break up hardpan in the soil, and bring up previously untapped nutrients from deeper soils.

Cover cropping tips

  • Some crops may be used for ‘undersowing’ or interplanting. This allows you to plant a living mulch while your vegetables are growing. About 2 weeks after planting your primary crop, just sprinkle low-growing covers (like white clover) at the base of your planting to conserve moisture add nitrogen, and improve the soil structure.
  • Most cover crops can be ‘broadcasted’ or spread evenly over the space that you have set designated. It helps to rake the seeds into your soil after you have prepared the bed for planting.
  • Remember that it takes 2-3 weeks for a cover crop that has been tilled in to decompose. Resist the urge to plant during this period, as the decomposition process can inhibit seed germination and root growth.
  • If you are planting a crop in the fall winter soil protection, you will need to plant your seeds about 30 days before the first frost date.
  • Using a seed mix with a combination of good cover crops may be a good option if you are interested in seeing which crop works best for your needs.
  • Some cover crops can spread to other parts of your garden. If you are concerned about this, remember to select an annual crop that dies back in the winter, or a plant that you don’t mind popping up uninvited!
  • By cutting down cover crops before they become mature or woody, you will be saving yourself a lot of effort when tilling or harvesting the plants.
  • The use of inoculant when planting legumes can help germination rates.
Published in Organic Gardening