Joshua shared with you his very aggressive, super fast method of composting and fertilizing. Now it’s my turn to share my method with you and how I feel it differs from his in some pretty important ways.
Fast Compost – Gardening Gold (or Is It?)
In the book, Joshua lays out how he meticulously chops up organic matter and turns his piles frequently – resulting in compost in a matter of weeks. Compare that to my method, which is to pile alternating layers of garden refuse, chicken bedding and cut grass onto a forgotten pile. I occasionally inoculate it with worms and whey or other fermentation scraps and leaf mold but otherwise let it break down on it’s own. If the pile is big enough, it will break down in a matter of months. If it’s not big enough, it may take a full winter. If the pile is my worm bin underneath the rabbits inside the chicken run, it breaks down very quickly. Either way I leave it be and accept the results.
What I’ve noticed over the years is the compost that breaks down faster is not as dark or richly sweet smelling or effective a growth medium as the compost that breaks down slowly. I attribute this to the fact that the fast compost method heats the soil up so that some of the bacteria is destroyed, or more aptly, cooked.
When I make cheese from milk that has been heated above 115 F, it does not have the full flavor profile, the subtle nuances and superior texture of cheese from milk that is heated. This is because those bacteria that impart more subtle characteristics have been destroyed. I am guessing, and I have no evidence to support this other than my own observations, that it is the same with my compost. We do know that the most nutritionally rich compost is the most nutritionally diverse compost – which supports the most diverse soil life. And we know that plants cannot absorb nutrients directly from the soil, but instead rely on soil life to absorb those nutrients and excrete them in a manner that plants can absorb. Therefore, the more diverse your soil life, the more nutrients are available to your plants and therefore to you.
In addition to destroying some of the bacteria in your compost, heating it up is basically burning the nutrients off much more quickly. Those nutrients are escaping into the air and washing out in the water – flooding into water tables and streams. I believe this is a manner of polluting. I also believe it’s wasting those nutrients and creating a short lived dose of nutrients that sets up the cycle of needing to fertilize more often than necessary. And since most of us won’t bother getting our soils tested before fertilizing, we once again are using more fertilizer than necessary (with its high carbon price in it’s creation, packaging and distribution) which once again pollutes the atmosphere.
So what do I do instead?
I use animal manures and passive compost and mulch to both feed the soil life and protect soil structure so that it drains easily.
I test my soil and fertilize or mineralize only when needed.
I plant “wild” or easily reseeding vegetables and perennials as much as possible.
I utilize companion planting, interspersing nutrient accumulators and nitrogen fixers with heavy feeders.
Preparing and amending the soil
Because plants take in air through their roots, the soil should have air pockets and good drainage (so the roots don’t become waterlogged, suffocating the plant). By providing decaying organic you create an environment attractive to worms, pillbugs, centipedes, funghi, and bacteria – the web of life – who will find and aerate your soil for you. As organic matter decomposes and creepy crawly critters move through your soil (depositing nutrient-rich outputs along the way), they create air pockets and soil structure. An initial heavy manuring gets the web of life off to a good start. Cover your soil with mulch (decaying matter like wood chips or straw or living mulch like creeping thyme or beneficial insect flower mixes) to prevent your soil from drying out in the sun or becoming compacted in driving rain.
Thereafter, compost “in place” and mineralize as needed to maintain good soil structure. Once you have good soil structure and decaying organic matter, limit soil amendments other than minerals and isolated nutrients to the top layer of the soil. To compost in place, pull back the top layer of mulch, apply a thin layer of items to be composted and then replace the mulch. The web of life will find your compostable matter and convert it into minerals and nutrients in a form that your plants can absorb.
Testing Your Soil
Before applying minerals and nutrients, get a soil test done. AL Labs West, Logan Labs, and UMass all provide results but SoilMinerals.com will analyze those results and prescribe soil amendments. You can find organic amendments at Black Lake Organic, Walt’s Organic, Peaceful Valley or Concentrates NW. There are probably countless other sources closer to you but I am the most familiar to those sources in the Pacific Northwest.
Why Wild, Self-Sowing and Perennial Vegetables?
In addition to not requiring annual reseeding, wild, self-sowing and perennial plants have stronger root structures and therefore are more efficient at absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. You also are not harvesting the plants every season, which means less soil disturbance (which does not disrupt the cycle of soil life).
Many people rely on isolated vitamins to make up for shortfalls in a nutritionally deficient diet. I’ve never believed that it’s possible for science to fully understand the complete chemical makeup of a living thing, and the fact that we learn about new nutrients, or ways that nutrients work together in whole foods frequently solidifies that belief for me. I don’t see how it could be any different with fertilizer. We know the bare minimum isolated nutrients to keep plants alive (NPK) but how do we know what other nutrients that plant really needs to thrive, and for us to thrive when we eat it’s fruits, leaves or shoots? We know that food is less nutritious today and in part that’s due to variety breeding – but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about the nutrients available in the soil, both through their presence, and through the amount of soil life that makes those nutrients available to the plants. If we aren’t nurturing the soil life, that soil cannot support the most nutrient-dense food no matter how much we are fertilizing it. And then how do we know which nutrients we are missing by using isolated fertilizers?
Greater Plant Diversity
Nature has a perfect system for creating plant nutrition. Diverse organic matter, strong soil life and diverse plant life. How does diversity in plant life matter? Different plant types uptake different nutrients at different rates. By growing large blocks of the same plants in the same soil, those specific nutrients are drained much faster. But by growing diverse plants in the same soil, those nutrients are utilized more evenly.
In addition, some plants with deep tap roots reach way down into the soil to draw up those nutrients created by deep dwelling soil life and make those elusive nutrients available to shallow rooted plants.
Nitrogen is present in the atmosphere and washes down during rain storms. Certain plants, like legumes and a handful of bushes, have developed a system for capturing and storing that nitrogen in their root nodules. By inter-planting nitrogen fixers (such as a living mulch of clover) with other plants, you help make that stored nitrogen available to your plant groupings. Plants that need nitrogen will reach down and borrow from that nitrogen “bank” as they need it and without polluting watersheds.
By pairing both nitrogen-fixing and nutrient-accumulating plants along with perennials (for example, a legumous cover crop and a deep tap rooted plant like comfrey) you create a near perfect planting combination. The occasional compost application may be all that combination of plants ever needs to thrive.