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If you have a garden, you need to have on-site compost. here's why.



Composting corrects nutrient mining from farms by cities

One could consider composting to be a process of enriching your own land with fertility you've bought from farms. You've only eaten it first. When you send away your compost the city profits from your organics, which are then sold to landscaping companies to fertilize ornamental gardens.

During the second world war and before, micronutrients (vegetables and fruits giving vitamins and minerals) used to be produced at home, while macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein-and yes, fat is a nutrient, we need it to survive) were grown in the more spaceous lands of the agricultural hinterland and brought into cities. this meant that foods that demand a higher nautrient input, vegetables, were produced closer to home, where the nutrients could ultimately be composted back into the soil. Foods like grains or meats returned much of their fertility back to the farm's soil as chaff or manure and hides and other unused body, with only part of their total value being sent into the city. This represented a more economical transfer of soil nutrients, with less being sent from farms into cities.

Compost reduces the effects of acid rain

I worked at the home of one client who had gardened and home-composted on the Halifax peninsula for three decades. She had her garden soil tested by the Agricultural College at Truro and discovered that her soil was chemically neutral. No small feat in a part of the country with acidic bedrock and industrially produced acid rain. I credit the compost and the constant groundcover of perennial and self-seeding annual plants, even though those plants were almost all ornamental.

One reason might have been a good cationic exchange capacity, the process by which plants acquire the minerals they need. Basically plants break down water (H2O) into an H+ and an OH-. Their roots will hold out the OH- , wave it around, and hope to grab a K+ or Ca2+ atom or molecule, securing those atoms they need to live from their soil. Cationic exchange capacity is a measure of soil health, and the ability of plants to do this. It also makes the pH of the soil more stable, making sure it is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. A good fraction of humus and organic matter will increase the cationic exchange capacity of the soil. (wikipedia)



Compost provides the soil life plants need to make use of nutrients

Your soil can have fertility but without life to assist your garden, your plants will have a much more difficult time. The field of soil chemistry is immensely diverse, but simply stated, more living things in your soil means your soil aggregates more (clumps), providing room for more water absorption, more air, more habitat for yet more soil creatures and creating more surface area for cation exchange to take place. Soil organisms such as fungi and bacteria also form symiotic relationships with plants, especially perenials and trees.

So if your garden isn't up to snuff or even if it is, consider growing your soil. After all it's your soil that grows your garden.

Above are some simple designs for compost boxes. I like to have space for a cubic yard in a box, with 4'wide walls. Three pallets lashed together are all you need to get started, but I like to use 1/4 inch mesh or "hardware cloth" to keep out all but the smallest animals. The best deal I've found is at Pierceys on Robie street who sells 25 feet for around $30. I staple this to beams to make panels, and then assemble the panels. This design has the benefit of being modular, so if you move you can take it with you.
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
Most cities on the Eastern seaboard experience soil contamination from arsenic and lead. Many choose to build raised beds to grow food in fertile soil one can be sure of. I am often asked by clients and friends for economical ways to fill a series of raised beds, which usually entails several cubic yards of soil.

The most obvious route is to buy soil from a landscaping company. Each bed may need 1/2 to 1 cubic yard. I fit six beds in my typical urban backyard. A reputable company will sell a soil/compost mix for around $30 a yard but this will include a delivery fee that is usually in the order of $80. There will also be a minimum purchase of 1/2 yard to 1 yard. Because of the delivery fee, larger purchases make sense. Furthermore landscaping companies tend not to allow customers to split purchases by dumping in two locations (though if you move the soil by wheelbarrow or truck to your friends house, who's to know). This option will cost a couple hundred dollars.

One problem with buying topsoil is that it's removed from an area of land and not replaced. Topsoil can take thousands of years for nature to create. Sometimes soil is removed from farmland and sold, and one cannot be sure if it has been treated with pesticides, some of which, in bygone days, may have contained yet more lead and arsenic (Paridise Lot, Eric Toensmeier, p33). There are no landscaping companies at this time in Nova Scotia that I know of that sell a product that is 100% compost or created soil. They all include 'mined' soil in some proportion. I try to purchase as high a percentage of compost as I can in a mix.

As an aside, it saddens me to see many gardeners needing to add further topsoil to their gardens every five to ten years. If you need to keep adding soil to your garden, if it is not creating more soil than it is using, then your garden is broken. Sometimes some of the soil is eroding off in mismanaged rainwater. But more often it is being oxidized by soil tilage: the soil is turned with a fork and oxygen in the air literally burns soil carbon, turning it into carbon dioxide. Also, carbon that would be added to the soil from falling leaves and organic material is raked up and sent away. At least in Halifax it is composted and not landfilled. These gardeners would never have a soil problem if they kept their leaves on site and composted them along with kitchen waste and as many organic materials as are created on site.

Returning to starting a new garden, a cheaper option is to buy broken bags of soil and manure from your local grocery or hardware store. If you can say you're providing for a community garden they may even give those ones away free.

For my raised beds I went to the Bengal Lancers on Bell road in downtown Halifax. They had more horse manure to give away than I would ever use in a lifetime. They and any stable usually has to pay a hefty fee to have the manure hauled away, so they are thrilled to see me at the door. The manure is fresh, of course, but the middle of the pile is hot enough to kill weed seeds. I filled my beds in the autumn and let it rot through the winter, or sometimes even planted in it directly. The composting process causes the soil level to drop (again through oxidation), but by then I could add some of my own finished compost to bring up the level. After a few years my raised bed soil will be more stable and levels will drop less. I have heard from Silas Magee of Little Foot Yurts that successive treatments of horse manure, though a wonderful free resource, can cause uncomposted wood chips to build up and borrow nitrogen from your plants, which harms them. This can be prevented by adding a nitrogen rich top dressing like manure or finished compost, or even diluted urine.





Thanks Best-Price!

Broccoli grows happily in a thin layer of soil. I filled this bed with fresh horse manure, and then a year later topped it up with bagged manure from a grocery store.



Don't let it tell you otherwise

Many other soil ingredients can be gotten for free in the city if you are willing to wait a year or two for your raised bed's full production. Cafes are a source of used coffee grounds and sometimes coffee chaff. Brewers might give you spent barley mash if you ask nicely. Apple trees might have scabby apples or simply too many. Autumn leaves line the streets of all cities in North America already bagged neatly. Tree trimming companies have copious amounts of wood chips they also will gladly give you. Restaurants and farmer's markets can give you scores of buckets of high-nitrogen food scraps. People mowing lawns may give you high-nitrogen grass clippings. Wood shops have bags of untreated sawdust. I'm sure this list can go on. One consideration is that these establishments are often short on space and it is courteous to pick up buckets promptly, or bring containers with you and pick up what is available at the moment.

Eric Toensmeier gives a good recipe for a lasagna garden in Paridise Lot (2013). THis is a technique that could easily be used for raised beds. Though the mixture composts here as well and loses some volume, I've had no problem growing food in raised beds that were filled with even 8" of fertile soil.

If you are composting your own soil, it may take a few months to a year for your raised beds to get to full production. However besides being cheap to free you can be assured of the high quality and fertility of your soil, which will also help prevent plants from taking up contaminants like arsenic and lead. A year from now, you'll be glad you started.

halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
As we enter into the harvest season things are not slowing down! I will next post an entry I wrote a month ago and neglected to post!

In the meantime, my two zucchini plants are producing as much as my house hold can handle. I am not going to plant more than two a year ever again unless circumstances change dramatically!

I am also observing many thread-waist wasps in my garden. These are a good sign as they prey on problem insects and keep them under control. I also saw a couple of
Pelecinus polyturator. From http://web.ncf.ca/bf250/gardenhym.html

"This wasp thrusts its ovipositor into soil to detect a grub larva, lays one egg on each. The wasp larva burrows into the beetle larva, killing it, then scavenges remains and pupates there in soil."
Gruesome yet effective. I did not get any pics unfortunately but this is from the above site:





I have put in my autumn planting: arugula, black seeded Simpson lettuce, Bloomsdale spinach, Bright Lights swiss chard, and some beets. I seeded the Occu-pee with white clover as a green manure.






The zucchini still going strong





As are the potatoes: they were a good use of not-quite-finished compost in these raised beds.





It looks like it's going to be another good grape year




My front wildflower garden has really come into its own:















Do you ever wonder, "what the heck is permaculture anyway?"? I am giving a workshop tomorrow (August 23) and the Thursday after, August 30 at Just Us cafe on Spring Garden road at 7:00 pm titled What Is Permaculture. Admission is free. Tell your friends.
halifaxearthtech: Photo of fairy wrens taken by Bengamint444 from Wikimedia Commons (Habitat)
The wildlife in my neighbourhood seem to have caught on to the fact that there are extra pickings my backyard. It was cute when the mother robin came to my compost bin to scoop up worms for her fledgelings. Last Wednesday I came home to see this:

A large raccoon looks up from my compost with an expression of guilt

As cute and humongous as this critter was, if my neighbours saw a raccoon going through my compost they would crucify me. So I was inspired to finally (nearly) finish this humanure hacienca or, as I call it, the over-engineered compost box.

compost box

It has a flipping lid on hinges, a locking front door on hinges, and is made of solid hemlock. It was rather expensive to make. Its future buddy compost box is going to be a much less accessorised $40 spruce box from Penny Lane work experience and assisted living for the mentally challenged in Bridgewater.
halifaxearthtech: Photo by Panphage from the Wikimedia Commons (Soil)
The spring workshop roster is filling up. Next tuesday on Valentine's day I'll be presenting at WHW Architects on Humanure, and this saturday at the office of my federal riding's representative Megan Leslie with some friends about Peak Oil and Transition.

On the mushroom front, I'm sorry to say that the enoki had a fruit-fly event. Take it from me if you're going to propagate spawn from a mushroom butt it helps to remove the old butt material after the mycellium has taken. I salvaged some mycelliated cardboard and sandwitched it between damp untreated sawdust. So far the flies seem to be leaving it alone. There is also some Penicillium chrysogenum on the surface of the burlap sacks, but the Pleurotus is so vigorous that I'm not going to give up on it. I don't expect to see fruit until the autumn from any of my scaled-up sawdust sacks.

Seed starting season is almost upon us! I'm pleased to report that I'm assisting Owen Bridge of Annapolis Seeds at the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings. He has a much expanded inventory this year including many interestingly shaped and coloured tomatoes. He reports that business has accommodated the move of Hope Seeds from New Brunswick to the Annapolis valley quite well, with Hope concentrating more on seed potatoes and in servicing producing farmers, and Annapolis Seeds gearing more toward the urban very-small holder and beautiful and unusual vegetables. I am enjoying the chance to help this very worthy project and to spread the word of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds to the public.

I've also been able to sell European Nightcrawler composting worms over the internet. Response has been greater than I anticipated and I will have to scale up my worm bin before offering any more.


halifaxearthtech: Photo by Joe Shneid of Louisville Kentucky, from Wikimedia Commons (Pattern)
Today I learned that the north slopes of hills tend to have soil profiles that are more acidic, more heavily leached and deeper, while the south side tends to be more alkaline and thinner. This makes sense if you think that the hillside with less solar exposure will be cooler, which will encourage more precipitation and less oxidation of soil carbon. At Verge we were taught that coastal soils, like the northern sides of hills, experience more precipitation and this leads them to be more acid, while inner-continental soils in arid areas can be quite alkaline. As well, soils at northern latitudes tend to be thicker, as there are less plant life forms trying to use soil nutrients at all times of the year.

Nifty site is here:
http://soilsofcanada.ca/
halifaxearthtech: Photo by Panphage from the Wikimedia Commons (Soil)
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04slime.html?pagewanted=all

When food was placed in Madrid and Barcelona on a map of Spain, slime moulds echoed the resource paths of the Spanish highway system almost perfectly. They also most likely played a vital role in creating Earth's first soils, before plants, animals or even fungi crawled ashore one billion years ago. They still are vital to soils today, bridging the food web between bacteria and macrofauna.

I've seen two in my life, in situations where there tended to be an overabundance of decaying nutrient (in a compost pile and on a strawbale that was under a birdfeeder). Certainly very weird, colourful and gross looking!

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