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.

A Scything I Do Go . . .

What a lucky gardener I am to have a one-acre field at my disposal. Not for planting, though. Except part of it; I couldn’t restrain myself.
When I moved here, many years ago, the caretakers of the field — before it was mine –mowed it every couple of weeks all summer long. Before them, another neighbor had mowed the field once a year with a sickle bar mower attached to his tractor. Nowadays, I mow the bulk of the field once a year with my tractor’s

brush hog attachment, which is, in essence, a giant rotary motor. But I mow the edges and a significant portion of the field by hand, with a scythe.

(Stay tuned for a scything video posted on my “Life on the Farmden” video series; link to the series above, to the right.)

So what’s so lucky about having this not-so-care-free field to take care of? Four things. First, the field offers a bit of wildness near my cultivated plants, a place where bees, dragonflies, and butterflies can frolic. Not that they can’t frolic among my cultivated plants, but there’s something to be said for what goes on among plants and soil hardly touched by human hand. Of course, rabbits, voles, and other undesirables come with the territory; I have to accept them.
The second lucky thing about having this field is all the mown vegetation it provides. Mowings from the brush hog are not easily gathered, but that from my scythe is. Laid on the ground beneath my trees, shrubs, and vines, this vegetation provides mulch that keeps the soil moist and feeds soil microorganisms and plants. Stuffed into my compost bins, the vegetation is nutritious food for my compost “pet” (pile).
That scything is also good for me, for the exercise. What a joy to step out in the coolness of morning and swing the scythe, stirring my “blood and [flexing my] muscles, while it clears the meadows,” to quote Scott Nearing, who lived to be 100. That’s lucky thing number three.
Lucky thing number four is that I get to enjoy the beauty of the field, now dominated by yellow heads of goldenrod. Livening things up are spots of white asters against a shifting green background of grasses. And then there are patches dark green with thorny blackberry canes or red with leaves of sumac.
Ah, that sumac and those blackberries. They are the next step in the field’s transition from a meadow of herbaceous plants to woody shrubs, and then on to trees. That’s what happens if Nature’s given a free hand around here.
But I want a meadow. Not only that, but I notice that the ground beneath the tall goldenrod plants is quite bare of other vegetation.
So I’ve taken matters into my own hands, and am now scything down some of the goldenrod and any

areas dense with blackberry canes or sumac shoots. Exposed to light, the near-naked ground should soon be dense with sprouting grasses. By selectively scything those cleared areas repeatedly next spring, grasses can regain a toehold. Grasses are the only plants that tolerate frequent mowing.

A balance needs to be struck here. Too much mowing, and only grasses will persist. I’m trying for a mix of grasses with some goldenrod and other flowering meadow plants.
With a nod to sustainability, the question arises: In mowing the field and removing the mowings for compost and mulch, am I robbing Peter to pay Paul? As nutrients are carted off along with the vegetation, will the field yield less and less over the years. My guess is not.
Only a small portion of the total field gets scythed and harvested. And I scythe and harvest different areas each year. Soils have natural abilities to regenerate themselves when left alone. Nutrients locked up in

native minerals are unlocked over time as those minerals are solubilized by microbes and root exudates.

Even nitrogen, the nutrient that plants need in greatest amounts, can be grabbed from the air (which is 80% nitrogen) and put into a form that plants can use. Leguminous plants do this with the aid of symbiotic bacteria, but soils also contain free-living bacteria and other microorganisms that can grab at the nitrogen in the air to put in the ground.
So, all in all, the field presents a win-win situation, for me, for my plants, and for all the creatures, microscopic and larger, that get to enjoy it.

Coir, A Substitute for Peat

My kitchen isn’t filled with the fragrance and beauty of blooming daffodils, and I have no one to blame but — no, not myself, but — the local store where I bought the bulb last autumn. How could I have resisted? Sitting right by the checkout counter of the store was a bucket full of bulbs, each bulb only one dollar and having the makings of fragrance and beauty already locked within.
Yes, “already locked within.” Spring bulbs’ flowers are initiated in the growing season before the flowers appear. The key to unlocking the pleasures lurking within most spring bulbs is cold temperatures. A period of cold weather lets these bulbs know that winter is over and it’s all right to awaken and blossom. Exposure to cold happens naturally outdoors, with the flowers appearing in spring. 
When “forcing” bulbs for early bloom, you trick the bulbs into thinking that winter is over by exposing them to the requisite amount of cold, which varies for different kinds of bulbs. Brought indoors in winter to warmer temperatures, they can then blossom out of season.
The bulb that I bought was a “paperwhite” daffodil, a species (Narcissus tazzeta) that originated in warmer regions of the western Asia. In those warm regions, paperwhites evolved to flower without needing to experience winter cold. So buy one of these bulbs in autumn, pot it up or put its base in water, and bingo, flowers soon appear.
Except for the paperwhite that I purchased. That bulb just kept growing leaves, an indication that last year’s growing conditions were not good enough — insufficient light, fertility, or water perhaps — for the bulb to divert energy into making a flower bud.
The present bulb is the second one I got from the same bin this past autumn. After the first one showed no sign of flowers, I went back to the store, explained why, as long as the bulb grows, it should make a flower, and received a second one free of charge. 
I figured the first bad bulb was an aberration. It wasn’t. I’ve been watching leaf after leaf unfurl on the second dud for weeks and weeks.
In an effort to make my farmdening even more sustainable, I’m swearing off peat moss, or hoping to. Peat moss is the partially decomposed remains of plants, mostly sphagnum species. In the garden or farmden, peat moss is very useful for improving soil aeration, and water and nutrient retention. Mostly, these benefits are put to use in potting soils to help roots in their rather limited growing space. My home-made potting mix, which I’ve made for over 30 years, is 1/4 by volume peat moss (the other 1/4s comprised of garden soil, perlite, and compost, and a bit of soybean meal and kelp meal for added nutrients).
Use of peat is unsustainable because its mining outstrips its rate of formation. Peat accumulation can occur at a snail’s pace: an inch or so per thousand years. Peat develops under boggy conditions and to mine it, the bog must be first drained. Air replaces the water and the result is that some of the carbon stored in peat is oxidized to carbon dioxide. And we all know what that does. As a final blow to sustainability, draining and mining peat bogs upsets its unique ecological habitats.
So must gardening and farmdening, both potentially sustainable practices for providing local food that can to be grown with minimal environmental disruption, be wedded to the use of peat moss? Not necessarily.
Other organic materials, such as compost and leaf mold, can fulfill the same functions as peat moss in potting mixes. They have the further advantages of being local and richer in plant food than peat moss. They have the disadvantages that you have to make the stuff, that planning is needed because you have to gather the materials and wait for them to “cook,” and that the final product may not always be consistently the same.
A consistent, commercial peat substitute coming down the pike is coir, a renewable byproduct of coconut processing with characteristics very similar to peat moss. I’ve experimented occasionally with coir over the years and it seemed to work well enough. However, seedlings planted in a recent batch containing coir aren’t thriving.
Anytime a component of a potting mix is changed, changes might also be needed in watering regime or fertilization. My guess is that watering is the problem since my potting mix has plenty of nutrients from the compost and soybean meal, and the symptoms — poor growth and leaves wrinkly but not off-color — don’t indicate any nutrient deficiency. The symptoms seem more like those due to poor root growth, possibly from excessive moisture. Or perhaps the soil or compost had some weak root pathogen that’s getting the upper hand.
I need to sleuth out this problem soon because I’m about to make a large sowing of cabbage and its kin as well as peppers and eggplants. On the plus side, all this is some of what makes gardening so interesting.
Any gardening questions? Email them to me at and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at