Waste Not, Want Not

Two Reasons to Compost

With weeding, harvesting, watering, swimming, kayaking, golf, and biking to do this time of year (not that I do all these), why would anyone spend time making compost? For one or both of two reasons, that’s why.

First, as an environmentally sound way to get rid of so-called “garbage.” Landfilled, the valuable nutrients and organic matter locked up within old broccoli stalks, rotten tomatoes, even old cotton clothes are taken out of our planet’s nutrient cycle almost forever. Landfilling, to me, also disrespects the soil, that thin skin over the Earth that supports much of life here.

Once Levi's, now almost compost

Once Levi’s, now almost compost

This leads to the second reason to make compost now. I require plenty of compost for my gardens so need to scrounge every bit of waste organic material as it becomes available. Even go out of my way to haul it in. Or create it.


Having oodles of compost goes a long way to make a garden or farm truly sustainable. Even though relatively low in nitrogen, as far as plant needs, compost can do away with the need for any other fertilizer.
Compost bins
For years, just to make sure that my compost-fed plants were not going hungry — for nitrogen — I spread soybean meal on the ground just before laying down the compost. 

Soybean meal provides an organic form of nitrogen but is hardly a sustainable way to nourish the soil. That meal comes from soybeans grown on fields who-knows-where, fed with fertilizers needing fossil fuels for their production, tilled by fossil-fueled tractors, processed in fossil-fueled factories, and transported by fossil-fueled trucks. The same could more or less be said for any fertilizer, organic or otherwise, except compost.

Years ago I made a computation, based on an estimate of how fast nitrogen is released from compost and average nitrogen needs of vegetable plants, of the amount of compost needed to provide all the nourishment a garden would need for one growing season. The amount is about one cubic yard per 300 square feet or, (if you’re a farmer, you should be sitting down), about 70 tons per acre. But these figures are for planted areas, so compost need be applied to only the planting beds.

Also, compost has a residual effect, with only a portion of nutrients being released each year. Yearly additions build soil fertility and nourish a healthy soil life.
Spreading compost
On my farmden, a one inch depth of compost provides all the nourishment needed for intensively grown, healthy and healthful crops for an entire season. I just lay the stuff on top of the ground to get the most out of it nutritionally and biologically, and provide a weed-quelling mulch and seedbed.


Is making compost truly a way to sustainably nourish the ground? As with so much of agriculture, a balance is sought. Let’s check what goes into my compost piles.

The usual, of course: carrot peelings watermelon rinds, egg shells, old bread, and other fungal and bacterial treats from the kitchen compost bucket; cabbage stalks, old lettuce, and weeds (all even if pest-ridden, diseased, or otherwise) from the garden. I also throw in old cotton or wool clothing, even leather shoes and gloves. Because of noncompostable components such as elastic bands and synthetic cloth parts, they all yield very interesting products staring out in the finished compost.Composted shoeOccasional, light sprinklings of soil add bulk to the finished mix. Occasional, sprinklings of ground limestone keep planted ground, final stop for the compost, in the right pH range.

Two feedstuffs make up the bulk of the compost. One is horse manure, the most questionably sustainable part of the whole mix. The horse manure is an abundant waste product of a nearby horse farm.

Adding hay to compost


The other feedstuff is hay that I scythe from a one acre field here on the farmden. In mowing hay and composting it, then using the compost to feed my gardens, I am, it seems, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” But given time, soils regenerate nutrients on their own so I try to rotate which portions of the field I scythe.

Not for You? Then . . .

Making compost isn’t, for reasons of time, space, and inclination, for everyone. In some regions, you can deposit your compostables at a recycling center for composting. And an increasing number of companies are popping up that, for a fee, will pick up your organic waste for recycling. Check web listings for town and county offerings.

I like to make compost, finding it interesting, useful, even enjoyable. And my plants love it.

My Compost for a Bin

Compost, All Good, In Time

One problem with gardening, as I see it, is that much of it is about delayed gratification. Even a radish makes you wait 3 weeks after sowing the seed before you get to chomp on it. With a pear tree, that wait is a few years.

Which brings me to compost. Now that the flurry of spring pruning and planting have subsided, I’m starting this year’s compost cycle again — that’s compost for use next year. Delayed gratification again.Smelling compost
Food waste, yard waste, and compostable paper make up 31% of an average household’s waste which, if landfilled, ties up land and contributes to global warming. Composted, it feeds the soil life and, in turn, plants, and maintains soil tilth, that crumbly feel of a soil that holds on to moisture yet has plenty of space for air. You don’t get all this from a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer or even a bag of any concentrated organic fertilizer.

The key to good composting is to have a good bin. Any pile of old vegetables, leaves, grass clippings, old cotton clothes, straw, or wood chips will turn to compost eventually. A bin keeps everything neat, fends off scavengers, and maintains heat and moisture within.Compost bins

Buying a compost bin is one option. Consider whether you’re making compost for your garden or just as an environmentally sound way to recycle what used to be called “trash.” You need a larger bin for the former use because you’ll be importing materials, such as leaves, wood chips, and manure, to bulk up the compost.

The Perfect Compost Bin?

Over the years, my home made compost bins have gone through several incarnations. Four wooden panels filled in with chickenwire made my first bin. Once a pile was made and settled a little, I removed the panels, pinned black plastic onto the compost cubes to keep in moisture, and set up the panel in the next location for a new “compost cube.” Aerating my compost pile of yoreThe next bins weren’t bins but just carefully stacked layers of ingredients, mostly horse manure, hay, and garden and kitchen gleanings. And then there was my three-sided bin made of slabwood.Compost, me turning, slab bin

A dramatic jump in functionality came with my bin made from 1 x 12 hemlock boards from a sawmill, notched to stack together on edge like Lincoln logs. The only problem with this system was that I had to periodically purchase and notch new boards as older ones rotted away.Wooden compost binsWhich brings me to my current bin which, now, after many years of use, I consider nearly perfect. Instead of hemlock boards, these bins are made from “composite lumber.” Manufactured mostly from recycled materials, such as scrap wood, sawdust, and old plastic bags, composite lumber is used for decking so should last a long, long time.

The boards I used were 5-1/2 inches wide and 1 inch thick. A couple of inches from either end of each 5-foot-long board, I cut a notch on each side to a depth one-quarter the width of the board and about 1/8” wider than the their thickness. Compost bin boardWhen finished, I ripped one board of the bin full length down its center to provide two bottom boards so that the bottom edges of all 4 sides of the bin would sit right against on the ground. Compost bin, bottom boardsBefore setting up a bin, I lay 1/2” hardware cloth on the ground to help keep at bay rodents that might try to crawl in from below.Compost bin, hardware clothWith the Lincoln-log style design, the bin need be only as high as the material within while the pile is being built, and then “unbuilt” gradually as I removed the finished compost.

Feed the Beast(s)

Okay, time to feed my compost “pets.” Nothing fancy, just any spent plant from the garden, kitchen trimmings, old clothes made from natural materials, hay scythed from my meadow, horse manure from a local stable, and occasional sprinklings of soil and powdered limestone.

Composted clothing

Leather shoes, underwear (not mine), jeans

For interest, I’ll sometimes throw old shoes or gloves into a pile to see what’s left once the organic portion of the shoe or glove has been stripped off.By paying attention to the textures of the materials as I add them to the pile, it generally stays well aerated. If I have a load of manure and will be building up many layers of the pile at once, I water the layers as I go; it takes too long to get sufficient water down into the pile after it has been built. Once a pile is completed, I cover it with a layer of EPDM rubber roofing material, cut to fit, to seal in moisture and keep out rain.Compost bins, being filled & filledFeeding compost

Piles built this summer get turned once next spring so I can monitor progress and make sure they’re moist — but not too wet — throughout. The compost is used throughout next year’s growing season.

So yes, there is delayed gratification before I get to use the “black gold.” Then again, making compost is enjoyable; I get some exercise and enjoy feeding the various fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms at work in the compost pile.My compost piles

Shaving and Composting

 . . . But My Garden is in Order

“Some men there are who never shave (if they are so absurd as ever to shave), except when they go abroad, and who do not take care to wear polished boots in the bosoms of their families. I like a man who shaves (next to one who doesn’t shave) to satisfy his own conscience, and not for display, and who dresses as neatly at home as he does anywhere. Such a man will be likely to put his garden in complete order before the snow comes, so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” So wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his wonderful little book (much more than a gardening book) My Summer in a Garden (1898). I gave up shaving a few months ago, but I am putting my garden in order for autumn.

The scene is quite pretty as I look out my upstairs bedroom window upon my garden — my vegetable garden — each morning. Garden view, autumnWeeds have been removed from the paths and the beds, and spent plants have been cleared away. What remains of crops is a bed with some tall stalks of kale that were planted back in spring. Yet another bed is home to various varieties of lettuce interplanted with endive, all of which went in as transplants after an early crop of green beans had been cleared and the bed was weeded, then covered with an inch depth of compost. Also still lush green is a bed previously home to edamame, which was subsequently weeded, composted, and then seeded with turnips and winter radishes back in August.

From my window, the remaining eight beds in the garden present mostly grasses in various states of lushness. The “grass” in this case is oats, sown in any bed no longer needed for vegetables at the end of this season. I had cleared such beds of spent plants and weeds, sprinkled oat seeds (whole “feed oats” from Agway), watered, and then, as with the other beds, covered them with an inch depth of compost. One bed was finished for the season except for six floppy cabbage plants. I staked those plants up tall and out of the way, and then gave the bed the same treatment around the cabbages’ ankles.Cover crop, 3 beds with cabbage

Ready for Spring

That’s it: It all looks fresh, green, and neat — but more than that, what I did is also good for next year’s garden. Cleaning up weeds this year makes for less self-seeding of annual weeds and seeding and establishment of perennial weeds. Cleaning up spent plants takes any pest-ridden plant parts off-site, reducing chances for future pest problems.

Dense growth of oats protects the soil surface from pounding rain so water percolates in rather than skittles off the surface, promoting erosion. Cover crops, 2 bedsBelow ground, oat roots pull up nutrients that rain and snow might otherwise leach away into the groundwater.

And finally, that inch depth of compost that each bed gets helps support the many beneficial fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes, and other soil microorganisms that make up the soil food web. In so doing, it will provide ALL the nutrition my vegetable plants, even intensively planted vegetables, need until this time next year.

Mr. Warner, I think, would approve. Even my non-shaving; I do trim my beard regularly.

Add Water, Conveniently

A lot of compost is needed to cover all those vegetable beds. For all the beds in my two vegetable gardens, as well as those in my greenhouse, I estimate my annual needs at almost 5 cubic yards per year.

My compost is made from hay I scythe from my small field, kitchen scraps, spent vegetable plants and weeds from my garden, some horse manure in wood shavings, and, for fun, old cotton or woolen clothing, and leather gloves and shoes. 

Yes, I’ve read about striking a balance between feedstuffs high in carbon and those high in nitrogen in order to get a compost pile chugging along. As important is good aeration and moisture. Most compost piles that I see suffer from thirst.

A lot of water is required to wet the inner layers of a compost pile, and applying it requires more patience than I have. So I no longer do it manually.

I purchased a small sprinkler which I connected with 1/2” black plastic tubing (the same as I use for drip irrigation mainlines) along with some L connectors to lead the water line from the top center of a pile neatly down to ground level. Water pressure is variable from my well so I also put a pressure reducer, to 15 psi, in the line; a valve needing just one-time adjustment keeps the sprinkler wetting only the top of the pile. A U-shaped metal pin keeps the sprinkler firmly in place in the center of the pile.Compost sprinkler

All that’s needed after adding a batch of material to the pile is to set up the sprinkler, turn on the spigot, and set a timer for about 20 minutes. The droplets cover the pile right to the edges and in a day or two temperatures soar to 140° or more.

Next year at this time, this year’s piles will be ready to do their part in putting my garden neat and in order.


‘Tis the Season

    ’Tis the season to really put the “organic” in organic gardening. “Organic,” as in organic materials, natural compounds composed mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. “Organic,” as in materials that are or were once living, things like compost, leaves, manure, and hay.Vegetable beds in autumn
    I’ve spread compost over almost all my vegetable garden beds. A one inch depth laid atop each bed provides all the nutrients the vegetable plants need for a whole season, in addition to other benefits such as snuffing out weeds, holding moisture, improving aeration, and nurturing beneficial, pest-fighting organisms.Compost piles
    I’m also finishing up the bulk of making new compost for the year. Pretty much everything organic — old vegetable plants, kitchen trimmings, even old cotton clothing — go into the compost piles. The primary foods, though, are hay, which I scythe, rake up, and then haul over from my hayfield, and horse manure, which I pitchfork into the bed of my truck, then unload into a garden cart to haul over to the compost bins.
    Autumn leaves piled up last year have rotted down into “leaf mold,” essentially the same material as compost, with the same benefits. This pile arrived as a truckload last autumn thanks to the generosity of a local landscaper. The leaf mold isn’t quite as thoroughly broken down as the compost so I’m hauling that over to all my young trees and shrubs, and then spreading it beneath them.
    I’m also on the lookout for trash bags stuffed with leaves. Local leaf gatherers/baggers contact me when bags are ready for pickup. I toss the bulging bags into the bed of my pickup truck, then haul them over to and unbag them beneath my blueberry, raspberry, currant, and gooseberry bushes.

Organic Matters

    All this compost, hay, manure, leaf mold, and leaves are food for soil organisms. Most of the food is carbohydrates, the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that combine to make sugars, starches, cellulose, chitin, and pectin of living organisms. As carbohydrates are gobbled up, nutrients are released for plants.
    In their raw state, these organic materials are relatively low in plant nutrients. Compare the one pound of phosphate you get from ten pounds of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer with the 100 pounds of compost you need to offer  that same amount of phosphorus.Raking hayfield
    You could get that one pound of phosphate from only ten pounds of an “organic” source such as bone meal. That would be easier than shoveling out 100 pounds of compost — but the soil would then be deprived of 90 pounds of carbohydrate and other bulk that feeds soil organisms and, in turn, bestows physical, nutritional, and biological benefits in the soil.
    So I’m continuing to haul manure, hay, leaves, leaf mold, and compost for my garden. It’s also good exercise.  

A Beaut’ Worth Reviving for Winter

    Much lighter work is digging up an amaryllis bulb. I’ve always considered amaryllis too gaudy a plant, one giant, often flaming red flower appearing atop a bare stalk in early winter. And then, last autumn, someone sent me a big, fat amaryllis bulb along with a pot to plant it in, as well as some potting mix. How could I help but plant it?

Amaryllis now

Amaryllis now

    The flowers were prolific and awesome, flower after flower (yes, flaming red) appearing on each stalk, and stalk after stalk of flowers. This one was a keeper.
    Green leaves, the more the better, are what fuel the following year’s blossoms. (One flower stalk for every nine leaves, according to one source.) Periodic little fertilizer and, as needed, water kept the plant growing well until warm weather settled in for good in spring. Then I tipped the bulb out of its pot and nestled into a hole in a bed in part shade with rich soil and drip irrigation.

Amaryllis late last winter

Amaryllis late last winter

    Just before a night when temperatures dipped into the low 20s, I dug up the bulb and potted it up. It now sits, unwatered and leafless, in the cool temperatures of my north-facing mudroom. A couple of months of cool temperatures, 50 to 60°F, is good for waking up the flower buds within the now fatter bulb — and its small, baby pup, thank you.


How to be a Good Gardener/Farmer, Simplified

    “The poor farmer grows weeds, the mediorcre farmer grows crops, the good farmer grows soil.” How true, when I think of the good farmers and gardeners I’ve visited over the years. I aspire to be a good farmdener and spend a lot of time trying to grow soil.
    Growing soil isn’t all that complicated. (You do need to start with good drainage of water.)
    First, keep the ground covered. Organic mulches, such as leaves, straw, and wood shavings, keep rain from pounding the surface. The pounding drives small soil particles into pores, sealing the soil surface so water can’t percolate in. Bacteria, fungi, worms, and other soil organisms gobble up organic mulches, releasing nutrients and forming humus, which improves percolation and moisture retention, and makes room also for air in the soil. In my gardens, I never want to see bare ground.Bare, cracked soil
    Live plants likewise protect the ground. The plants might be cabbages, marigolds, carrots, and other garden plants. They might be cover crops, such as rye, oats, peas, or buckwheat, sown specifically to clothe and protect the ground during or at the end of the growing season, and through winter. They might even be weeds — Mother Nature’s way of protecting her soil.
    Second, maintain soil organic matter. Mulches do this, as do growing plants. I go one step further, and import organic matter. Bushel after bushel of leaves that have been raked and bagged by neighbors are collected are unbagged and unraked once they arrive here. Leaves that have been vacuumed into a landscaper’s large truck and then left here in a pile get unpiled here one pitchfork and garden cart at a time.
    I also pitchfork horse manure into the bed of my pickup truck at a local stable. Mostly, that manure is transmuted into compost and then slathered onto beds in the vegetable garden.

Compost, in the making

Compost, in the making

    I also import — really just transfer — some organic material from one part of my property to another. My small hayfield gets mowed once a year by tractor to keep it from becoming forest but parts of it I periodically scythe, these mowings to feed, along with the horse manure (and kitchen waste, old garden plants, etc.), compost piles.
    The third key to growing soil is to maintain fertility. A soil test can confirm what, if anything, is needed. If the first and second points in growing soil are followed, fertility is probably up to snuff.
    And finally, the fourth key to growing soil: Minimize soil disturbance, avoiding tillage or, at least, excessive tillage. Tillage mixes so much oxygen into the ground that soil organisms go into a feeding frenzy, in so doing gobbling up organic matter too fast. Thus, many of the above benefits, physical, biological, and nutritional, waft away, literally, as carbon dioxide.
    Farming and gardening aren’t “natural.” At their best, they are a balancing act that leans towards emulating natural systems. Which is to say, for instance, that tillage, is not all bad; it can be part of good soil growing if not done to excess and points one, two, and three are followed.
    A measure of “organic matter content” (OMC), from a soil test, provides a rough indication of soil growing progress. Less than 3% means more work is needed. Five percent, or more, is very good. (My vegetable beds are at about 15%.)

Blue-Green Algae Redux

    Last week’s notes about the darker side — and the brighter side — of blue-green algae may have left everyone feeling helpless. After all, you can’t change the hot dry weather that is, in part, responsible for the current blooms. But nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals washing into waterways to feed the bacteria also play a role, and it’s something over which we have control.
    Improper septic systems are one culprit.
    More topical culprits are mineral nutrients originating in backyards and farm fields. Too many farmers and homeowners subscribe to the philosophy that “if a little is good, more is better,” when it comes to fertilizer. Not so. Too much fertilizer not only is a waste of money; it damages or kills plants and, with rain, leaches through or runs off the soil to eventually find its way into waterways. A soil test will tell what nutrients, if any, are needed.
    Even better, if fertilizer is needed, is to use an organic fertilizer. Most are not water soluble until metabolized by soil organisms, which means they are less likely to wash through the soil.
    Better still would be to use compost to provide fertility. Nutrients in compost are locked up physically and chemically, waiting to be released by soil life in synch with plant uptake and growth.

Terraced field in Viet Nam

Terraced field in Viet Nam

     Phosphorus is a plant nutrient that binds tightly to soil granules, but makes its way downhill when rain washes over bare soil to move it downslope. One way to keep this nutrient out of waterways is to keep the soil covered with mulch or vegetation, especially on sloping land. Another way is to avoid exposing soil by tillage. Another way, if tillage is needed, is to till perpendicularly to the fall line of a slope. And yet another way is to alternate tilled areas with grassy strips to catch and hold soil.

Rye cover crop

Rye cover crop

    Do a lot of these recommendations — mulches, cover crops, composts, no-till — for preventing blue-green algae blooms sound familiar? Good gardening and farming practices are also good for the environment.


Coconutty Coir

 For a couple of years, a block of coir has sat atop my bale of peat moss.
    Peat moss, the product of slow, anaerobic decomposition of organic materials, accumulates, at a snail’s pace, in bogs: an inch or so depth per thousand years. To mine peat, the bog must be first drained. Besides upsetting bogs’ unique ecological habitats, draining  the bogs aerates them, sending some of the carbon wafting into the air.Peat and coir
    But peat is good stuff for potting mixes. My mixes are made up of equal parts peat moss, soil, compost, and perlite, along with sprinklings of soybean meal (for nitrogen) and kelp (for insurance against lack of any trace elements). Peat’s contribution to the mix is a long-lasting source of organic matter that helps cling to moisture and to nutrients, important in the relative confines of a flower pot.
     Coir is marketed as a substitute for peat in potting mixes. A sustainable substitute, made from the fibre left around coconut husks after they’ve been cracked open to remove their meat.
    This spring it was time to put that block of coir to the test, with a head to head comparison to peat. (I’ve tried this comparison before, but more casually.) The block, after slurping up a large volume of warm water, was ready to mix with the same ingredients as I mixed with the peat moss.

Some potting soil components

Some potting soil components

   Both mixes went into their separately labelled , 5 gallon buckets. Each mix then was used to fill one-half of a few GrowEase Seed Starter Kits. Into one of the kits went lettuce seedlings, another got tomato seedlings, and a third got pepper seedlings. The 24 cells of each kit are automatically watered via a capillary mat that sits atop a water reservoir, providing very uniform moisture to all cells within a kit and from one kit to the next.

Peat, Coir Standoff

    Drum roll . . . and the winner is . . . well, as I recently wrote, some of this year’s seedlings grew very poorly, perhaps, I’ve hypothesized, due to the soil I used, or the compost, both of which vary some from batch to batch. The overcast, cool conditions in the greenhouse during critical growth periods also could be to blame.
    Differences in growth between coir and peat based mixes were not great, but tipped slightly in favor of the peat based mix. This, incidentally, jives with my previous, more casual observations. It also jives with more rigorously planned and executed, published research.

Coir Still in the Ring

    The results of all this testing don’t spell continued destruction of peat bogs. Coir might still be a viable alternative.
    Peat and coir are not the same material. I perhaps should not have used the same ratio for coir as I’ve long used for peat in my mix. There’s some evidence that coir, as it slowly decomposes in a potting mix, can suck up nitrogen at the expense of plants. If so, more soybean meal in my mix could solve that problem. Other nutrients, or lack thereof, could also come into play, as could anti-growth factors, such as phenolics, known to be present in coir.
    More playing around is needed with coir.

Peat and Coir Substitutes

    No need to put all our eggs in one coir basket. Other organic materials can and have fulfilled the niche of peat (and coir). And our culture has no lack of organic “waste” products. Composted bark has been used in commercial mixes for many years, as has sawdust. More exotic, around here, at least, would be rice hulls.
    Home-grown and readily available “organics” for a potting mixes would be compost and leaf mold, both of which I’ve used in rougher mixes, such as for temporarily repotting small trees.Mixing potting soil
    The point is that any of these organic materials, including coir, could make a good potting mix if ratios and amounts of other materials are adjusted accordingly.
    Gardening (and farming) should be, and could be, sustainable; even the potting mixes used to raise seedling or grow potted plants.

Now Perlite, Hmmmm

    The other major component of any potting mix is some aggregate, for providing good drainage. My mixes use perlite. Not sustainable. More on that another time.


New York Avocadoes!?!?

    I make no claim to be rational in my gardening — especially this time of year. This thought comes to mind as I look closely at two avocado plants sitting in a sunny window. “Nothing irrational about growing avocado plants in New York,” you might say. After all, the large seeds are fun and easy to sprout, and the resulting plant adds some tropical greenery indoors.
    My two plants were run-of-the-mill avocado houseplants until I took knife to them.
    Let’s backtrack . . . Among my regrets of not living 1,000 miles or so south of here is not being able to harvest my own citrus and avocados. (Also, no outdoor gardenia shrubs or southern magnolia trees here.) A few indoor citrus plants do call mi casa sus casa. But no avocados.Avocado grafts
    From seed, an avocado would take a long time before it bore its first fruit. And especially long under less-that-ideal northern conditions, including indoors in winter.
    And worse, when the plant does finally flower, it might not bear fruit. Avocados generally need cross-pollination because the pollen isn’t ripe at the same time that the female stigma is receptive. Avocado pollinators need to be fairly specific, so that one plant’s pollen is in synch with another plant’s stigmas.
    And even worse, after all that time and hoping for appropriate mates, fruits that do form might not taste good. They wouldn’t be selected clones, such as the delectable Haas or Mexicola, but seedlings. (Plant a seed from a good tasting apple and the resulting tree has only one in 10,000 chance of bearing a good-tasting fruit.)
    Which is why I took a knife to my two avocado seedlings, to graft them to known, good-tasting varieties that are pollination compatible. A friend in Florida overnighted me scions — pencil-thick stems, with leaves stripped — cut from his Marcus Pinkham and Lula avocado trees. One of my seedlings got a whip graft of Marcus Pinkham; the other got a side-veneer graft of Lulu.
    I coverWithed both grafts with plastic to maintain humidity, and every day peer at the scions hoping to see some swelling in preparation for growth.
    Rational gardening? No. After all, even if all goes as planned, how many avocados could I expect to harvest from two small trees? Still, it’s fun.

Warm. Plant.

    Outdoors, it’s the weather that toys with my rationality. A spate of warm days and great restraint is needed not to plant vegetables. I keep referring to my notes (and the chart I made in my book Weedless Gardening) that tell me when to plant what.
  Planting onions  With yesterday’s 75 degree temperatures, urges to plant were satisfied — for that day, at least — by my poking holes into the ground into which I dropped onion plants sown indoors on February 1st. Three-hundred of them in a 20 foot long by 36 inch wide bed. (This was later than the April 21st onion planting date specified in my book, but the weather was cold so I forgot to look at my book.)

Planting Break. Turn Compost.

    When I get tired of planting, I can always turn to turning my compost piles.
    Not that compost piles have to be turned. In contrast to other fermentations, such as bread-making and wine-making, compost always comes out right. Pile up any mix of organic (living or once-living) materials, and eventually you get compost.
    I turn my compost piles so that materials on the outside of the pile get to be on the inside of the pile, second time around. This makes for a more homogeneous finished product.Turning compost
    I turn my compost piles to better monitor their progress, so adjustments can be made, as needed, and to get some idea when they’ll be ready for use. Occasionally, a pile will have a dry region; it gets watered. Occasionally, a mass of material needs to be broken up to better expose it to moisture and microorganisms.
    I also turn my compost piles because it’s good exercise and it’s interesting. But, like I wrote, turning a compost pile is not a must.



A Creature Not Really So Strange

    One of the strangest creatures I ever found in my compost was the dinosaur that emerged today as I turned the pile. It was worse for the wear, the gash in its head probably from my machete, the “solar powered” shredder I use for stemmy compostables like corn stalks. (Think about it.) After a year in the pile’s innards, the dinosaur’s greenish, scaly skin has been bleached almost white.

Dinosaur emerging from compost pile

Dinosaur emerging from compost pile

    I typically build compost piles through summer and into fall, then turn them the following spring. Turning, not absolutely necessary, lets me mark the piles progress and, as needed, fluff it up for aeration or sprinkle it if too dry. Many people use fencing to enclose a compost pile, which is effective as an enclosure but exposes the pile to too much drying air. My bins, made from artificial wood decking, stacked edgewise and notched together like Lincoln Logs, have solid walls which helps hold in some heat and moisture.
    I should mention, at this point, that the dinosaur might, in fact be a lizard. Oh, and something else: It’s made of a rubbery plastic. This ‘saur was unearthed many years ago as I was digging up a mulberry tree. Once salvaged, it resided in one of my garden beds, where it startled people (including me, occasionally) despite its mere foot-long length. It must have hitchhiked along to the compost pile with some garden debris at the end of the season.

Good Feedstuffs Make Good Compost

    Just about everything goes into the compost piles: weedy hay, garden debris, kitchen scraps, horse manure, old cotton or wool clothes, weeds, and anything else that is or was living, that is, organic. Also, some dolomitic limestone, which is rock so never was living but is “organic” in the cultural and legal sense. Dolomitic limestone adds calcium and magnesium to the finished mix, increases the alkalinity of the finished compost (to offset the naturally increasing acidity of soils here in the humid northeast), and improves its texture.

Sweater, almost composted

Sweater, almost composted

   The other ingredients offer a spectrum of macro- and micronutrients to the finished compost. Carbon and nitrogen are the two feedstuffs that composting microorganisms need in greatest amounts. I don’t dwell too heavily on the ideal 15 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen for a balanced feed that gets the pile heating and the compost finishing up quickly. Much depends on the size of the feedstuffs and the presence of other natural chemicals, such as natural lignins in wood shavings that slow down its decomposition irrespective of carbon to nitrogen ratios.
    I do pay attention to what I put in the piles, using a thermometer, my nose, and my eyes to monitor progress. No heat, bad smells, and slow progress indicate, respectively, too much or too little moisture or too little nitrogen, too much water or nitrogen, and too much or too little moisture or too little nitrogen. It’s all good though. Adjustments can be made when turning a pile, or do nothing and wait longer. Any pile of organic materials eventually becomes compost.

Real Reptiles in the Pile

    Other strange denizens, living denizens this time, of my compost piles have been black rat snakes. A few years back, I’d bump into them slithering out of the compost pile as well as coiled into the branches of a blueberry bush and, unfortunately, coming out of the chicken house, two swollen lumps in their bodies evidence of a recent two-egg meal. All-in-all the snakes are welcome for their meals of mice and rats.

Solar-powered compost shredder

Solar-powered compost shredder

    I’d also come upon clusters of the snakes’ soft-shelled eggs, up to two dozen or more, as I turned the compost. After incubation in a terrarium, out slid not-very-cute baby snakes.

Decisions, Decisions

    Turning compost piles provides relatively mindless relief from more thoughtful gardening such as planting decisions. Where to plant, for example, a dwarf shipova tree, an Alderman plum, and a Concorde pear? And should I risk planting out the borderline hardy Flying Dragon hardy orange (Poncirus, now named Citrus, trifoliata)?
    Easier to place are the vegetables, which need to be rotated every year, never (well, almost never) grown in the same location more than once every three years. Rotation prevents overwintering, nonmobile pests from having something to attack close at hand. The vegetable garden is in two banks of beds, so I just move what’s planted in each bed two beds counterclockwise each year, two beds to get them further away from previous years location than would a one bed rotation.
    Still, lettuce transplants, extra onions to be harvested as scallions, radishes, and short rows of arugula get spotted in willy nilly.

Heady Stuff, Here

    May 5th: This calm, warm morning the whole yard is awash in the sweet, spicy scent wafting from yellow trumpets of clove currant (Ribes odoratum) flowers. In August, this deer, drought, cold, heat, and pest resistant plant will be covered with large, black sweet-tart currants.

Clove currant flowers

Clove currant flowers

Clove currant fruit

Clove currant fruit



Prescription for a New Gardener

    It seems like everybody’s a gardener, or is becoming one, this time of year. And a lot of people have been asking me questions. Like my niece Lana, for instance, who moved along with her husband, a baby, and a toddler to a new house last fall and is ready to dig into a garden this spring — but, as Lana said, a garden “that will be easily manageable for her and interesting to her 3 year old.” (The one-year-old is still enthralled with her thumb and other such things.) So, for Lana and other beginning or non-gardeners, here is a simple plan for a small garden that requires almost “no time.”

A small, productive garden

A small, productive garden

    The most stringent requirement for this garden is sun. The more the better. And the closer the garden is to the back door, the more you will be drawn to it, whether to dash out to pick a few leaves of lettuce, or to pull a wayward weed. This garden can be, probably should be, small. Let’s assume it is ten feet by ten feet.
    The second requirement is soil that does not stay sodden for hours after a heavy rain. Push a can with both ends open into a hole in the soil and add water; it should drain faster than an inch an hour. If not, choose a new location or make raised beds.
    With sun and water taken care of, soil preparation begins. And ends a few minutes later! Blanket this area with a four-sheet thickness of newspaper (do not use colored pages), overlapped and wetted.  Done, almost. The newspaper will smother existing vegetation, and keep out weeds during the growing season. And as the paper rots away, it will enrich the soil.
    The planting plan is simple: divide the garden into four beds, delineated by two 18 to 24 inch wide paths going up the center of each side and crossing each other in the center of the garden. Cover the newspaper in the paths with wood chips, wood shavings, sawdust, or pine needles. In the beds, purchase some weed-free compost, enough to lay at least a one-inch depth over the newspaper.
    Sow seed right into the compost layer. Peas and lettuce need to be planted early — as in now — because they both enjoy cool weather in rows about a foot apart. Make each pea row four inches wide, then scatter the seeds so they are about an inch apart down and across the row.
    The next wave of planting takes place after warm weather has settled, in late May. Buy tomato transplants and set them in one of the northern quadrants. If needed make a hole through the newspaper into the soil below to accommodate the full depth of the transplant. Grow a variety for flavor, like Brandywine, Sungold, or Amish Paste. Each plant should be two or three feet from its neighbor, depending on whether you are going to stake your tomatoes or allow them to sprawl. Eventually you will have a jungle of vines in danger of overtaking or enlarging your garden, so take a few minutes occasionally during the summer to prune wayward stems from the tomato plants.
    Plant sweet corn and cucumber seeds at the same time as tomato transplants. Since corn is a tall grower, it gets the other northern quadrant. Plant three seeds together in “hills,” which are groups of seeds, not mounds of dirt, spaced two feet apart each way. Cucumbers get the final, southern quadrant. Sow six seeds per hill, with hills three feet apart. Grow a bush-type cucumber, like Salad Bush or Bush Pickle. Once the corn and cucumber seeds are up and growing vigorously, ruthlessly thin the plants so each corn hill has only one plant and each cucumber hill has three plants.
    This garden gets one final planting in early July. But where, since all four quadrants are used up? Pull out the peas and lettuce, which flag anyway during hot weather, and plant in their place bush beans. Bush Blue Lake and Bush Romano are good choices.
    This garden will produce a limited amount of vegetables with a minimum amount of work. Success may tempt you to enlarge your garden and grow a greater variety of plants next year.

Get Your Compost On

    A gardening friend called to ask how much compost is needed to cover his garden. It turns out that a one inch depth of compost will supply all the nutrition, plus a lot of other goodies, that a vegetable garden needs to nourish the plants for one year. So that one-inch depth needs replenishment annually.

Spreading compost on bed

Spreading compost on bed

   (Less compost could be used if the deficit is made up by fertilizer. But compost is the Cadillac of plant foods while also offering protection against pests, improved aeration and water retention in the soil, protection against erosion, and other known and unknown benefits.)
    Back to the amount needed: 1/3 of a cubic yard (300-500 pounds, depending on moisture) will cover 100 square feet 1 inch deep. That’s a lot of compost, which beginning gardeners will likely be buying. If you’re buying compost in bulk, which is the least expensive way to purchase it, make sure it’s good stuff by asking some questions, such as what went into the compost. Avoid using compost that contains industrial wastes — especially in the vegetable garden — because of possible toxins like excessive quantities of heavy metals that could contaminate your food. Also ask how the compost has been prepared and stored.
    The ideal would be to make enough of your own compost. Next year, perhaps.


Compost and/or Living or Dead Organic Material = Sustainable Fertility

Maple leaves already dapple the ground in red and yellow (early this year), one morning showed off what was to come with frost on the windshield, and each day the sun each hangs lower in the sky, yet I’m getting ready for spring planting. Really! Yes, I’d rather do it now than in spring.

Beds of spent vegetables have been cleared. Okra plants, in this cool weather, just sat in place, hardly producing any new pods. So out went the plants. I severed the main roots with my hori-hori knife ( and yanked out each stem. When corn is finished, it’s finished. Beds of early corn got replanted with endive, lettuce, and other late vegetables, but the latest beds of corn were harvested too late for replanting. Clearing away old vegetable plants not only clears the deck for next spring but also takes offsite some pests and diseases that might otherwise lurk around next year to do their evil work.

Clearing bed of all weeds and plants in preparation for its layer of compost.

Clearing bed of all weeds and plants in preparation for its layer of compost.

With spent vegetable plants cleared away — tomatoes and peppers are still yielding fruits, so they remain for now — I remove weeds. Ideally, all of them. Left in place, annual weeds spread seeds and roots of perennial weeds grab more tenaciously and deeper into the soil. A single pigweed plant, for instance, can drop 120,000 seeds, poised and ready to invade next year’s garden. That, and the 36,000 seeds on every plantain plant, the 39,000 seeds of each lamb’s-quarter plant, and the 8,000 seeds clustered in a crabgrass seedhead prompts me to pull these weeds now, before more seeds mature.

Of course, some weeds escape my notice, so the final step in preparation for spring is to suffocate these: I slather each planting bed with a one inch depth of mostly weed-free compost. A temporary 2X4 at each edge of the bed keeps the compost neatly in place until patted down firmly.

The compost does more than snuff out overlooked weeds. Its biotic life helps protect plants against pests and diseases. It helps soils hold water and air. And it feeds plants a smorgasbord of nutrients.

On a Garden, Farmden, or Small Farm, Fertility Simplified

Did I mention spreading fertilizer, “organic” or otherwise, in getting the soil ready for spring planting? No. A one-inch depth of compost supplies all the nutrients needed to grow vegetables, even in beds with closely spaced plants. Paraphrasing the Beatles lyrics, “All you need is . . .compost, da, da, da-da da.”

Bed in middle has been lathered with an inch depth of compost, left on surface.

Bed in middle has been lathered with an inch depth of compost, left on surface.

A garden is not Mother Nature left to her own devices; nonetheless, I try to emulate her as much as is practical. She does not spread fertilizer. Plants are naturally nourished as organic materials, such as leaves, stems, wood, roots, and dead animals, decompose to release whatever nutrients gave them life. I enjoy making compost and make enough to spread that required one-inch depth over all the beds. 

Next best would be to spread some concentrated source of the most needed nutrients, that is, “fertilizer,” on the ground and supplement it with a mulch such as wood chips, straw, hay, or other organic material. Here, an organic fertilizer, such as soybean or alfalfa meal, has the advantage over a chemical fertilizer in that nutrients become available over a long time and are made so in response to temperature and moisture, in synch with plants’ needs.N veg. garden, beds Oct '14

Two advantages of maintaining fertility with compost rather than mulch plus fertilizer are that seeds are more easily planted directly in the compost and compost, if made from a variety of feedstuffs, provides a wider spectrum of nutrient for the plants.

Cover Crops, Used Correctly, for Even Large Farms

A wheat farmer in Montana is not going to be spreading an inch of compost on his 1,000 acres, or even soybean meal and a mulch of straw. Agriculture is a balancing act, again, not Mother Nature but not disrespecting her either. In the case of a wheat farmer, or any large scale farm, cover crops are a practical route to healthy soil.

Cover crops are plants grown specifically to maintain or improve a soil. Cover crops may occupy the ground for part or for the whole season. As they grow, their roots push through the soil to break it up and, upon their death, leave channels for air and water. Roots exude natural compounds that stimulate a a wide population of beneficial microbes and release nutrients from the soil’s rocky matrix. Leguminous cover crops garner nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can gobble up. And once dead, deliberately or with age, cover crops can maintain or increase all important soil organic matter.

Oat cover crop in one of my beds.

Oat cover crop in one of my beds.

The devil is in the details. Killed too young, while still lush and green, a cover crop adds nothing in the way of soil organic matter (but does protect the soil surface from erosion). Tilling a cover crop into the soil, a common practice, might burn up more organic matter, by giving the ground a big burst of oxygen, than is added by the cover crop, whether the cover crop is young or old. And then there is the choice of cover crop itself for regional adaptability, for shading out weeds, or for beefing up a poor soil.

How about this? Set aside a separate area for cover cropping each year. Or set aside a separate area for cover cropping, but mow the plants one or more times through the growing season to provide mulch or feedstuff for compost. With enough land and suitable mix of cover crops, including legumes for nitrogen. 


“Sustainability” is a buzzword these days. Nourishing the ground with nothing more than annual sprinklings of chemical fertilizer not sustainable in terms of long-term soil health and because synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels in their making. At he other end of the scale, primitive slash and burn agriculture, where land is cleared and burned, crops planted for a few years, then the site abandoned for a new site, is sustainable. But you need enough land to be able to leave time for the soil to naturally regenerate before another slashing and burning. In our “advanced” culture, recycling organic materials back to the land is also sustainable. It’s just a matter of getting the materials back into the soil, as compost or more directly, but not to a landfill or an ethanol (gasahol) factory.