Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lots of different composts and many ways to improve soil

Start of winter cropping... One thing that's really challenging (and wonderful) in a Cape Town context is that there's always something you could be planting, so planning bed rotations for the year becomes really complex. I'm trying to think of ways to grow a large winter garden because we don't have to irrigate from May-September, provided the rain comes.
I like David the Good's approach to composting a lot-- i.e. compost everything!

Actually, about David the Good: I love his videos, I think his take on gardening is interesting and helpful. Also: He supports Trump?!?!! And seems to have such a different perspective on many things I value. My conclusion, abbreviated: We must be reading very different things and converse with very different people-- our experience of the world is very different and somehow, this has led us to profoundly different sets of conclusions on some things... yet a lot of similarities in our day to day life, I suspect. I find it so interesting that someone I admire so much online is occupying such a different world. So my vague sense from this is that we should try to be kind to the people around us, and try to keep writing and spreading an inclusive type of kindness, with the knowledge that our vision is super limited so... don't be too dogmatic (this is not to be confused with me saying that Trump is ok). There's so much out there we don't see or imagine.

Anyway, back to compost-- I wanted to share some experiences because I've been composting for a long time, only sometimes successfully, and I use a lot of different approaches:

Chop and drop:
We have a lot of Port Jackson (acacia saligna, an invasive but nitrogen fixing tree from Australia), which we chop and leave in place- this is classic permaculture and ultimately the idea is that you don't have a lot of outside inputs coming onto your farm. I'm also multiplying comfrey as much as I can, also to do chop and drop next year if I can get it big enough. In the meantime... we clearly are bringing in a lot of free sources of fertility, and making use of various manures (human, chicken, duck, guinea pig...)

If you don't have a lot of space, vermicomposting is brilliant and effective for kitchen scraps, and you can't really beat vermicastings in terms of quality of compost. That said, if you have a household with more than a couple of people and eat at home most of the time, the quantity of compost can quickly overwhelm your worms (and even kill them, or attract rats). In our experience, it's a good idea to be persistent (get through the fruit fly stage!), it's also a good idea to scale up gradually. In terms of the quantity of compost you get out, I think vermicomposting requires a lot of patience relative to other kinds of compost-- as in two years of patience. I often wonder if people know that going in, if they'll be more willing to weather the fly times and the rat times. When we were still a family of four, we already needed a MASSIVE (240L) bin.

So, worm composting is the absolute best option for kitchen scraps in a household that doesn't have chickens, and that needs small amounts of very high quality compost (I know there are also large scale applications, but I have less experience with those).

Check out our many worm bins:
The very unromantic reality of our largest worm bin. As you can tell our minimalist dreams have given way to hoarding cardboard and seed trays... While our municipal bin is totally a pain to harvest from, because of its size it's also extremely resilient and a great source of worms if we're having any trouble with our other bins. And we do also harvest castings, as the worms are well established. 
These are the classic tote bins with holes drilled in them-- I'd recommend these for most households, you can always just add a new layer if necessary (looking back, adding many totes is probably better than getting a really huge bin like we did). We have five totes-- 3 for regular farms and two just for cat litter.
These are the two bathtubs on the border of our property, under some trees. They're a bit further away from the house, so it's harder to care for them. But they're large and I think over time they'll be an integral part of our household. I made the mistake of feeding them spent brewing grain, which very quickly got extremely dry and hot... so we're building up again after that mistake!

You can see that at the moment, because of the pig and everything else eating our scraps, the worms mainly live on newspaper. 

We don't have enough to feed all of them, so I feed them manure at times, and have two bins where I take compost out fairly regularly, whereas I leave the two bathtubs alone right now. I have one bin that is just for cat litter, and I will never harvest from that: it's just so that we don't throw cat poop in the trash.

Worm composting is a kind of cold composting, so it's not a good idea to compost things where you're very worried about pathogens, unless you're never going to harvest from that bin. In a drought situation, vermicastings are truly phenomenal for increasing the water holding capacity of small volumes of soil (i.e. if you doing row gardening, it'll make less of a difference), particularly if you're gardening in raised beds or containers. Generally, vermicastings tend to be bacteria-dominated, which means that it is great for vegetables.

Ok, so while we love vermicastings it's not our only type of composting: we do a few types of hot composting:

Humanure compost
Our humanure compost gets very hot, but as a failsafe we also leave it for one year so that the pathogen cycles are broken. The issue with this is that the volume of compost is much less than it would be if we did a rapid cycle of hot composting. So sometimes this is a bit sad because a year's worth of humanure for five people, mixed with a huge amount of straw, ends up being just enough (fairly phenomenal) input for a few fruit trees. So it's not a huge quantity, but it's going to have a compounding effect over the years.

Berkeley pile
The rapid hot composting style is great for vegetables and in contexts where you are starting out with a low volume of organic matter in the soil (like our very sandy, drought-stricken environment). You do need some space to build the pile and turn it. When I need to renew a vegetable bed (or if I have a sudden flux of leaves, to balance my regular deliveries of manure), or have some energy, it's fast, you get good compost, and you get a good volume of organic matter. And horse manure, which usually can't be helpful to my vegetables in the short term, is ready to go into the garden in just 18 days (versus the year I usually wait otherwise).

This is day 8 of the current pile, and it's already starting to look really dark and crumbly-- 10 more days (5 more turns!) to go.

Other kinds of composting:
Every week, I dump two bags of horse manure, 2 bags of alpaca manure, and two bags of straw into the chicken coop. The chickens free range on about 1/4 of the property, so we given them a specific set of the manure inputs for them to work through. I put their mixed up manure-sortof-compost directly onto the bottom of raised beds, and directly around fruit trees. It's not exactly compost, but it's not raw manure either, and it seems like a great way to get a few wheelbarrow loads of compost-like-stuff every week or two. In the long term, I'm hoping that chickens and ducks will do a lot of our composting in place, and that we can find a way to make composting for the annual garden simple, and routine (and not involve a lot of energy).

The ducks roam around our house, so we have a lot of straw around our house to mitigate the effect of their pooping. I collect the soil around our house when I'm potting up trees or making seedling mix (I have get trees and shrubs pretty big before they get planted out... ). Duck poop is fine going directly into seedling mix, and I've had good success using a mixture of coconut coir and soil from around the house as seeding mix.

Horse Manure:
I put horse manure and straw directly around trees: no composting. Not right up against the trunk, and I don't dig it in. Basically, I'm trying to increase water holding around trees-- but I actually need to do a lot more to fertilize our trees. We have a lot of fruit trees now and it is pretty hard to keep up. I also put the guinea pig's bedding directly around a tree. This style of composting is slow and dominated by fungal action, which is beneficial for the trees. The danger of this is that persistent herbicides have been put into the straw-- either the straw eaten by the horse, or to the straw that I recycle from another household. I suspect that this has, at times, caused weird leaf things to happen in my vegetable garden, and so I'm hoping gradually I'll be applying horse manure further from trees roots, and not applying it to our vegetable garden at all. For now, the benefits of bringing in 200-300kg of free organic matter each week is pretty significant.

To my family's horror, I have smelly buckets of seaweed soaking in water around and about. I'm using this primarily, diluted 1:10, for our vegetables. It has to be covered to make sure mosquitoes aren't laying eggs in there, and it is pretty gross. I'm hoping I can gradually scale up to the point where I'm providing seaweed fertilizer to all our trees, as well. I basically get a 25L bucket of seaweed every trip to the beach-- 1 to 2 times a week. I'm not systematic about it, but over time, like everything, it adds up. I generally wash the seaweed in sea water at the beach to remove any sea creatures/sand. At our farm, I only rinse the seaweed if I'm adding it directly to vegetable garden beds. Otherwise, I just add water and let it sit.

Korean Natural farming:
The core idea of KNF, as far as I can understand, is that you try to inoculate large volumes of compost with beneficial fungi and bacteria. There fermentation happening (as with soaking seaweed). I'm not being terribly scientific about it as yet, and I'm not going to specifically use precious rice to multiply out bacteria (unlike in Korea, we never have leftover rice!), but I'm attempting to multiply out my sourdough starter with fruit peels and other stuff. The thing I'm getting out of learning about KNF is thinking through options that provide rapid, cheap accessibility of nutrients (unlike most of my compost that is more like mulch with benefits). I'm still early on in understanding it, but it's an interesting approach in a very different climate (though they're also into it in Hawai'i, which is also different from Cape Town but shows that some of the principals must transfer).

Also, KNF has a cult-like figure at the center of it, so I'm only into it a little bit. I tend to be suspicious when one approach seems to self-assured and confident. There is just too much we cannot know.

Buckets of.... stuff...

Volcanic rock dust/Azomite:

This is the only input that I've purchased in terms of fertility. I bought in bulk, and I give a cup per fruit tree (and a teaspoon per seedling) when I remember. I'm not systematic about it, but I'm hoping that over time it will help to provide important minerals to our relatively ancient soils.

We have some chicken manure in places where our chickens roost, and previously I've just thrown that manure around trees, to let the nutrients gradually leach down to the tree. But as I see that the trees are needing more manure, I'm planning on soaking the chicken manure in water and giving it to the trees.

Closing thoughts
As you can tell, even with just 1 acre (and actually most of our manure and composting is focused on less than 1/2 acre still) and a lot of animals to help, a lot of thought needs to go into the soil (especially in a non-ideal farming setting like sand or drought). I suspect in a few years, I will not have to put quite so much thought into composting. A lot of people swear by one style of composting, but I think there are lots of different ways to bring fertility into a space, and each philosophy seems to have benefits that depend a lot on compost and availability of scraps/manures/etc. Also, if you just do soil without thinking about sun, wind or water, things go wrong. I think I'm realising the importance of finding a lot of ways to get water to the soil, and protect plants from wind-- they're all connected and important. If you have the capacity to completely dig up your garden, bring in a truckload of compost/woodchips, and put a lot of plants/trees densely at the get go, permaculture blitz style, I'm gradually realising that dense planting of desired plants would actually decrease the need to compost somewhat. At our scale, and my level of inexperience/busy-ness at the start, we just couldn't put in enough plants all at once (though now, inspired by our nursery, I'm starting hundreds of plants at a time).

I can definitely see why people just grab bags of N-P-K, as practicing all these different kinds of composting does take time and energy. Of things that I spend energy on, this seems like an investment rather than a sunk cost, and over time we see changes in the property and are able to grow things more easily. I don't think organic farming on 1 acre has to involve of complex composting, but I have found trying a bunch of different things, for different circumstances, appeals to me. Bringing in a lot of compost at the beginning of the farm's life will hopefully facilitate a tapering off later on.

What kinds of composting are you trying?

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