In which we, having returned home, get back down to business (and give an overview of Composting for the Home Gardener)
Note: we are back in town and have resumed seeding etc for the Fall season, but have not yet returned to Markets or resumed Open Hours at the Nursery. We will resume these activities shortly, by the end of this (August) month, probably, but not until we’ve got everything ship-shape and the plants are full and saleable. Till then, love you, enjoy this month’s newsletter:
We’re back home to New Orleans, and by the time you are reading this it will be August — a month that all year weighs heavy on all of us who work outside or have spotty AC. The height of Hurricane Season. The Dog Days of Summer.
But, interestingly enough, August is also when we turn our attention to the cold-weather crops. As much as, in other, more northern climates, much ado is made about extending the season under plastic, starting tomato seeds while outside the garden is blanketed in snow, here in the Gulf South we spend a good deal of energy extending in the other direction, under shade cloth mostly. So here we are in 100 degree weather with 100% humidity, starting late season broccoli (and, yes, more tomatoes).
But as I always say, and I came up with this myself, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” And the pests. And the disease. In dryer climes, people grow tomatoes and cucumbers all through the summer, because it isn’t that they can’t take the actual temperatures, it’s that they can’t take what comes with those temperatures down here. So, for this month at least, we enjoy the jungly tropical greenery and start our seeds, and dream of days a couple months off when we’ll be swimming in traditional vegetable crops. But that’s our job (to start those seeds) — that’s what you pay us for. Besides, you’ve got plenty else to do in your garden in the meantime.
On that note: rather than a long, heady/wordy essay on the hidden symbolism of the windowsill herb garden or some other BS, I’ve included an intro to home composting that I wrote for a different project a while back that never saw the light of day. In much of the western world, gardeners attend to garden cleanup and infrastructural projects in the winter months, when nothing will grow. But winter is some of our best growing down here, so we have to do those things when it’s too hot to grow. Maybe not ideal, but it is what it is.
Besides, I’ve got a lot of vines to pull and seeds to start, and who’s got time to write a snooty essay anyway?
but first, here’s us in CO, on our way back home (the algorithm overlords like to see human [/dog?] faces):
Composting for the Home Garden
Aims of Composting
There are two primary reasons to compost at home, each totally valid. The first reason is to dispose of food or yard waste without sending it to the landfill, and the second is to generate our own compost for use in the garden. An ideal scenario will combine both of these aims into a wasteless system that transforms food scraps and lawn clippings into a beautiful, finished compost, but this is not immediately attainable for many situations. As in all things, we will identify what system is best suited to our situation and start there. Eventually, we can finesse our system into a perfect, wasteless, closed loop; but, for now, we’ll start with what we’re capable of in this moment and work from there.
Organic material will naturally break down and decompose with no help from us, so if our goal is just to dispose of kitchen waste etc, it really can be as simple as dumping the material anywhere that we don’t mind having a pile of decomposing scraps. Of course, in most situations, we will still want to take steps to mitigate smells, flies, etc., and there are several ways to achieve that. We can dig a hole and bury it (not a very labor efficient solution), we can turn the compost pile every so often, or we can cover the pile with “brown material,” tarps, or something else. No matter what system we choose, assuming we’re not running a huge industrial operation with 10 foot high piles, we will avoid putting certain kinds of material in the pile (addressed below), but, beyond that, any way we choose to pile up food waste and plant debris, it will eventually compost in place and turn into humus (crumbly, composted organic material).
Now, if our aim is to purposefully create workable compost for the garden, there are certain steps we will want to take in order to ensure a more useable product and a much quicker process. The biggest things we can do are to add enough material to the pile to cross a certain size threshold, turn the pile regularly, and to be intentional about the ratio of green/brown material that we add.
What Can be Composted?
Generally, any type of organic material can be composted, but some materials require enormous piles and very high temperatures in order to be composted safely and effectively. In our pile we will avoid, for example, any meat or dairy products, which can harbor disease as well as attract pests. Egg shells are fine.
We will also avoid oily or greasy materials, including vegetable matter etc. that is coated in cooking oil. For this reason we will, as a general rule, not add leftover cooked food to our home compost system, sticking instead to the uncooked kitchen scraps such as potato peels, carrot tops, etc. Vegetable waste that has been cooked only in water, such as boiled vegetables or cooked grains, is fine so long as it is free of added oils. Salt should be kept out of the pile as much as possible.
There are many disposable products that are marketed as “compostable,” such as forks, straws, clamshell containers, etc. While it is indeed true that these products are made from organic material that can in fact be composted, the composting systems that such products are designed for are large industrial or municipal facilities in which piles reach extraordinarily high temperatures. That said, there is nothing strictly wrong with throwing these items into our pile, or a pile designated specifically for them. They will, however, take a very, very long time to decompose completely — potentially years, depending on the product — and we may find that they look like garbage that has made its way into our compost. If we choose to add them to the pile, we may wish to screen them out of the finished compost before adding it to our garden.
Green vs Brown Material
Plant debris can, for our purposes, be divided into two camps: nitrogen-rich Green Material, and carbon-rich Brown Material. For a well balanced compost pile, we will aim for roughly equal proportions of the two. The actual carbon/nitrogen ratio we want is something like 30:1, but because all living things are made mostly out of carbon, including the green stuff, it works out that if we add equal parts Green and Brown Material, we end up pretty close to that 30:1 ratio.
Green Materials will be the vast majority of any scraps coming from our kitchen, any lawn clippings, and coffee grounds (Green Material for our purposes).
Brown Materials are dried leaves, woodchips, sawdust, paper, dead branches, rice hulls, peanut shells, straw, etc. Because nitrogen is fleeting, something like cut grass/hay, very much Green Material when it is first cut, will become Brown Material over time if it is left, for example, to dry in the sun.
Our goal is to have the Green and Brown material evenly distributed throughout our pile, and this is generally best accomplished by keeping some kind of reserve of Brown Material near the pile, and using it to cover the Green Material as it is added from our kitchen or wherever. This will result in a layered pile that will then be mixed together when we are ready to turn it. Covering the Green Material also goes a long way in keeping away smells and pests, which we will explore more in a bit.
Once we decide that we are finished adding to the pile, we can begin turning it. At this point, we will stop adding any new material and start working on a new pile next to the old one. Often, people build compost enclosures with multiple stalls for this, which can be nice, but is not necessary. Generally, a pile should be pretty sizeable, about a cubic yard, in order to get hot enough and yield a good end product. Every time we turn it, the pile will heat back up. The magic number to shoot for is 131℉, and the aim is to keep it at or above that temperature for at least two weeks, turning the pile a minimum of five times. We may choose to buy a compost thermometer to monitor the temperature, otherwise we can verify with our hands that it is steaming hot to the touch. The name of the game is keeping the pile hot enough for long enough to cook off any pathogens and leave us with a rich, even, finished compost.
Turning compost is hard work. Unfortunately most labor-saving compost devices, like that barrel kind that you turn with a crank, just aren’t really worth it, mostly because the pile cannot get large enough to do the work it needs to. But, for most home gardeners, the pile will not need to be turned constantly, and there are things we can do to make it easier for ourselves.
So, let’s think about the layout of our compost area. We will need at least space enough for three piles, to accommodate the pile we are adding to, the pile we have finished adding to, and an additional space into which we will turn the finished pile. The easiest way to turn a pile is to shovel it from one space into another, and we can switch it back and forth each time we turn it because of the third space that we allowed for.
The ideal tool for turning compost is a pitchfork (this is different from a digging fork, which is shorter and stockier, with heavier, more closely-set tines). A shovel can work, but, especially in the early stages of the pile when the material has not yet broken down, it can be very cumbersome. A pitchfork will allow us to lift more material at a time with less effort. If we are incorporating a compost pile into our garden routine, it is worth seeking one out or perhaps collaborating with a neighbor who may already have one.
There are several smells associated with composting, some we can do more about than others, but for our purposes the pile really should not have a strong smell at all.
A sulphuric smell, like rotten eggs, is indicative of “anaerobic” conditions. This means that the interior of the pile is not getting oxygen. An anaerobic pile tends not to be so bad until we break into it with a shovel, and then the smell is unleashed. We can avoid this by turning the pile more regularly, which introduces oxygen and keeps the pile “aerobic.” Adding more chunky Brown Material can help with this as well.
Exposed rotting Green Material, especially fruits and manure, can also smell. In this case we just cover it up with Brown Material. For the most part things will lose their smell when they are well integrated into the compost pile.
Similarly, flies can be combated by regular turning of the pile and ensuring that all green material is properly covered. Flies particularly love sticky, sweet materials such as fruit.
When are We Finished?
A finished compost will be relatively uniform (though it will never be perfect), dark, crumbly, and have a pleasant earthy smell. If we aim to add our compost to potting soil or to seed directly into it, we may choose to screen the larger particulate matter for a finer, more even product, but this is not necessary for general use. Once it is finished, our pile will benefit by sitting and “curing” as long as we want to leave it, but it can also be used right away. If we do choose to let the pile cure for any length of time, it is a good idea to cover it, either with a tarp or with more brown material, both to keep neighborhood animals from using the pile as an outhouse, as well as to keep too many nutrients from leaching out as the pile is rained on.
It is enormously satisfying to spread our own compost on a garden bed.
Some Notes on Other Composting Systems
There are of course other methods of composting. For the most part they are differentiated by the particular organism that they interact with. For example we may choose to feed our waste to pigs, chickens, worms, a particular fungus, or a cocktail of beneficial bacteria. For our purposes the hot compost pile method that we have been discussing is at very least a skill worth mastering, but let’s focus for a moment on another excellent approach: the worm bin.
The Worm Bin
Whereas the hot compost pile leaves us with a good, sturdy, all purpose garden compost, worm composting (or “vermicomposting”) yields a delicate, fluffy product which, in addition to its excellent nutritional content, lends an ideal architecture to our soil with tons of air pockets and surface area to maximize the water holding capacity and biological content of our garden beds.
Another benefit to this method is that it eliminates all the laborious turning of piles, letting the worms do all of the churning and aerating themselves instead. The trade off however is that this method will not generate nearly as much finished compost material as quickly as the hot compost method. In a perfectly harmonized garden community, a compost pile and a worm bin will operate simultaneously, and their combined product will result in an abundance of dynamic garden soil.
The worms that we want for our vermicompost operation are called Red Wigglers. There are, of course, many species of earthworms, but Red Wigglers are generally accepted to be the gold standard of composting worms. They can be ordered online (they generally ship through the mail with no problems, though we should avoid ordering them in the Gulf South during the height of summer, as there is always a chance the package will be left to sit out in the sun), or, even better, we can take a handful of worms from a friend or neighbor’s worm bin and use it to inoculate our new bin. When we are first adding worms to a new bin we should be very careful to keep their environment dark and moist and not to overwhelm them with food. As time goes on and the worms become more established, they will not be quite so high maintenance, but at first they should be gently nurtured until their population begins to explode.
A worm bin can be made out of any container larger than two or three cubic feet, with a snuggly fitting lid. It should be able to drain, however, so if we use a water tight container we will want to poke some holes in the bottom of it. The fluid that does drain out of it will be an extremely nutritious but gentle fertilizer, and so we may choose to nest the bin within a second bin or above a tray of some kind in order to catch the fluid. This is not entirely necessary, however.
When initially starting a worm bin, special care should be given to providing a comfortable home for the worms, otherwise they may easily just pack up and leave. We will fill the new bin with a bedding of damp newspapers, which will provide plenty of moist hiding spots for the worms. To accomplish this, we will, piece by piece, ball up sheets of newspaper, dunk them in water, and then squeeze out most of the water before throwing them in the bin. We want the balls of paper to be about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, and we want to give the bin at least a foot or so of bedding to start. The bedding should then be covered with wet corrugated cardboard, which further helps to ensure a dark and wet environment at all times, as well as providing an ideal space for the worms to mate and lay their cocoons in the corrugated grooves.
From there we need only to add the worms and a handful of compostable kitchen scraps, buried under a few inches of bedding. The worms should migrate to where the food is, but we will make it easy for them by putting the worms and their first batch of food near each other in the bin. In the future we will feed them every week or so, but we should monitor how quickly they are consuming their food and only give them a little bit more than they are consuming. As the population grows, so too can the amount of food we give them. As a very general rule, we can add one pound of food for every cubic foot of worm bedding every week, but we should observe how fast our worms are consuming to avoid overfeeding, which can result in anaerobic conditions and unwelcome critters.
The ideal temperature range for red wiggler worms is between 55 and 77℉, so here in the Gulf South we should be careful to locate the worm bin in a shady spot. The more bedding in the bin, the better it will insulate from extreme heat as well as maintaining a good moisture level. In the summer months we may even choose to soak the bedding with a hose every so often, but we should take care to be sure that the bin drains properly and the worms are not left in standing water.
To harvest the finished vermicompost, we will start feeding one far side of the bin to lure all the worms in that direction, and scoop out the digested compost from the rest of the bin. There will be some worms left in it almost certainly, and we can screen them out and throw them back in the bin. We will leave some of their previous bedding in the bin, as well as adding more damp newspaper and covering them back up when we are finished. The resulting compost can be used in any garden soil, especially potting soils, or else we can steep a cheesecloth bag full of it in water and use the resulting tea to water our plants.
The bees have all gone. We don’t know if they died or moved on but we do know they no longer grace us will their presence at Too Tall. My nature is to assign all sorts of symbolism to their disappearance: they also don’t want to live in a state/country that continues to wage war on reproductive rights, they also are anxious and grieving the corporate destruction of the earth and the way capitalism devalues life, they also are exhausted by the prospect of another hurricane this season. But, dear friend, you can probably tell this is just me projecting because I feel sad they’re gone, the icing on this dumpster fire cake of a world. So I’d like to invite you to join me in a moment of mourning for the loss of our hives and gratitude for their companionship and collaboration in stewarding Too Tall Farm. You could close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel your feet or bum planted firmly on the earth. Maybe you’ll even hear some bees buzzing
And there is still some hope—Colin is going to clean the boxes so we can bring another hive to the farm, and hopefully the new bee babes will live long and prosper
Thought I’d forgot, didn’t you?? Not on your life, homie.
On our long, meandering drive up to Seattle, we stopped at Gulley Greenhouse and Garden Center in Fort Collins, CO because Maggie had found on the internet that they carry vanilla bean orchids (Vanilla planifolia). We purchased two, barely rooted in 2” pots, and carried on on our merry way with them safely nestled in our cupholders.
They survived many days and nights in those cupholders, including at least a couple days abandoned with the windows up while we left our car to ride out to a remote cabin some hills above the extensive, idyllic and (again) remote prairies of Eastern Montana (where we unknowingly infected our gracious host w COVID. Dunno if you want to be named, but shout out to you, man).
We arrived in Seattle with both orchids remarkably not only intact but thriving. One we pawned off on my sister and her husband to keep in a lovely bay window, the other we ultimately drove all the way back down here, where it now lives with its kin in our Orchid Room.
A few years and 12+ feet of growth from now, we hope to be high on the hog with (fingers crossed) one or two vanilla beans of our very own. I can’t hardly stand it.
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All of this is written with a traditional, western veg/herb garden in mind (think: tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, lettuce etc etc etc etc). This is of course far from the only way to grow, and these are far from the only crops. There is much to be said for a more sub-tropically appropriate approach to gardening, in which August may be (far from being the “off season”) the peak of growing/eating. I would like to write more about this at a later time. Moreso, I would like to learn more about this. We do some growing at Too Tall of fruits and tropicals, taro root and malabar spinach and of course ginger + turmeric etc. But at the end (beginning?) of the day, I’m just another wack-ass northern white guy, and what I know is (mostly mediterranean) vegetable crops. If you have any favorite books etc about non-western vegetables or (ideally [but not exclusively] native) subtropicals, please holler at me.
The compost masters at UpGarden insist that all green material be chopped into pieces that are 6"-12" long.