Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Making compost is a fairly simple matter and is the first step in the gardening process. If you are starting a new garden, establishing a compost pile is the very first thing to do. It is good to start composting a year before you start the garden. Here, we are starting some new garden areas to start using next year, and are piling up all sorts of vegetation for these areas. There are piles of leaves, weeds, and ferns.
Compost is black gold for the garden, and is invaluable in getting new soil productive, as well as for side dressing established plants. It conditions soil, adds nutrients, and can be used as mulch.
There are myths about making compost. One is that compost requires a bin or other enclosed area. Another is that weeds shouldn't be added to a compost pile. Neither is true.
A compost pile can be started as a simple pile on the ground; a bin or enclosure is not needed. We tried a hay bale enclosure one year, but found that the hay became a breeding area for slugs. The bales were full of them and it was nasty, disgusting, and gross to say the least. We have also used one of those round black plastic bins that are commonly sold as a fundraising effort through local organizations. We are happy to have contributed to the cause, and the bin worked out better than hay. But we abandoned it after discovering several families of well-fed mice comfortably ensconced in the finished compost at the bottom.
As for weeds, they are essential composting material and should not be trashed outside of the garden. Weeds, as they grow, extract nutrients from the soil, and those should be returned. I've added large quantities of weeds, especially dandelions, to compost piles over the years, and have never had dandelion or other weed infestation as a result. Our compost piles do not grow weeds. Oddly, tomato seeds seem to survive the heat of the pile, and we often have several tomato plants sprouting. This year a potato is growing.
There are other aspects of composting that are worth paying attention to. One is that when assembling a compost heap it should be made at least three feet across and three feet deep. A new heap can be started smaller and added to, but may not be fully effective. Really big piles can be too much work to turn. Three foot piles seem to work well for both the breakdown process, and for turning.
Another fact is that a combination of browned stuff with green stuff is what gets the pile to cook. I often save a pile of last fall’s leaves to layer with freshly picked weeds. The green and brown combination creates heat and the pile, if it is evenly moist but not wet, will actually ccok on the inside. This burns out seeds, and facilitates the break down process. Water the pile if it seems to be drying out. It should be kept evenly moist, but not wet. 
In hot summer weather a pile can break down in as little as two weeks. It helps to turn the pile several times to mix it and bring the bottom stuff to the top. Turning a pile is easy. Keep an unused area next to the pile. Using a four-prong cultivator (a hand tool), pull the pile into the empty space and leave it there. At the next turning, pull the pile back onto the previous area.
Having the pile directly on the ground is essential so it can be worked by earthworms and beneficial bacteria. The pile will attract plenty of worms; there is no need to buy them. There is also no need to buy bags of worm castings for your garden. Your finished compost will have plenty already.
We never turn compost in the winter, and it stacks up and becomes anerobic. In spring it is gooky and stinky. After it is turned to let some air in, the odor disappears and the compost returns to normal. 
Finished compost is black. Any color in the pile that is lighter than black is unfinished compost. Unfinished bits can be pulled out and used in a new pile. Use the finished compost as side dressing by your plants, spread it on garden beds after fall harvest, or work it into the soil. -jmm

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Forest to Farm, and Permaculture: What's Happening in the Orchard?

Our orchard is only a handful of trees, one of many ways that it is different from larger commercial ones. We are homesteaders, not farmers, and our goals are less about production than simply being able to grow some healthy trees that will eventually bear fruit. Since we are operating on a very small scale, we have the freedom to experiment with some permaculture ideas. Click here for an earlier post on this. 
A fruit tree and companion plants
A swale is one of many ideas of permaculture, and last year I dug one, click here for the post. The fill has settled in; branches, rotting logs, leaves, and raked-up forest litter, and the swale now serves as a pathway. Beneath the surface, decaying organic matter absorbs water from heavy rains and winter snowfall. The moisture then leaches gradually into the soil to benefit the fruit trees.
Last year I planted some aromatics and bee-attracting plants; lemon balm, lemon catnip, feverfew, anise hyssop, bee balm, and some comfrey and daffodils. In the berm (raised edge) of the swale I planted yarrow.
This year, I’ve added two shrubs; a highbush cranberry, and a red twig dogwood. These, along with the aromatics are intended to encourage birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects. Biodiversity is a concept of permaculture that is largely unknown in commercial orchards.
A new Red Twig Dogwood shrub
The shrubs create a new canopy layer. Canopy layers are a permaculture idea about mimicking the different heights of plants in the forest. The flowers, the shrubs, and the fruit trees create three distinct layers of vegetation due to the differing heights of the plants. The sixty foot tall oak tree in the center of the orchard is a fourth canopy layer.
The orchard was fitted into an area in the woods, and there are signs that the soil is trying to revert back to forest. Ferns are doing their best to take over, and much of the ground is becoming unworkable after all of my hard work with a grub hoe. It’s a struggle to get the forest to back off. The forest and cultivation appear to be two wildly different habitats.
The comfrey is flowering
To help condition the soil I tossed out sorghum and Canadian field pea seeds, which I had done last year also. This year I also seeded some Dutch white clover, and some going-to-seed dandelions. And planted some clumps of day lilies. I added a few food plants: chives, perennial onions, some asparagus, and some turnip seeds. Which of these will thrive is a guess.
Lime is essential for converting the acidic forest floor into an environment that is sweeter and more friendly to cultivated plants, and has been liberally applied, as well as wheel barrow loads of organic cow manure.
There’s lots going on there. Who would have thought that forest to farm is such a tough proposition? More on this as things progress... -jmm

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Zen of Weeding

I like weeding. I enjoy the time spent.  Am i crazy? Or even a little masochistic? I shove the weeding tool down by the roots, give a little prying action, then grab the weed and pull. It’s a part of the gardening experience.
Weeds are nature’s design to leave no bare spaces. Nature fills in. Voids are taboo. And so the weeds have entered into the spaces. Enter the weeds.
like empty canvas
nature fills the vacant space
so, enter the weeds
Weeding takes focus. All of my attention. It is a sort of meditation. Meditation is about being here, right now. Not thinking of either past or future. I pluck the weed and make sure the roots come out with it.
A healthy patch of weeds
i have great respect
for all nature's weedy gifts
yet, the weeds must go
Weeds are a good sign. They mean we did our job with manuring and getting the compost around. This year they are looking fat and healthy. To the compost pile they go, completing a cycle of growth to waste and waste to growth.
as veggies are picked
spaces in garden return
so enter the weeds
Herman Hesse wrote Siddhartha, a book about spiritual seeking and enlightenment. Sidhartha had his most enlightened time as a ferryman on the river. He had left the spiritual orders and religious teachers to spend his days listening to the river and ferrying people. He had stopped seeking answers. He felt no need to seek, just to be.
the garden thrives
with great bounty to sustain
without weeds for now

Weeding Is just weeding. There is no past and no future. There is the garden, the weeds and me. Pulling weeds by hand is not a chore and not something to avoid. It is my meditation. I don't need to think about anything. Just pluck ‘em out. The zen of weeding. -G.H.