Posts Tagged ‘compost’

The Giving Bale

February 19, 2009

With the first snowmelt of the year, I was reminded of the huge score I managed to pull a month or two ago.  I’ve got nearly a dozen straw bales in the backyard that I picked up from behind a church by my favorite library.  They were used for a pumpkin sale in October, and I checked in with them regularly while I worked up the courage to ask if I could take them.  It would have been great if I had asked immediately following the pumpkin sale, because by the time I picked them up, they were waterlogged and frozen together.  It took a great deal of effort to get them into the old hatchback, and I had to use a prybar to get two of them apart.

Even in an urban area, bales of straw aren’t too hard to come by–I’ve picked them up from curbs after people used them as harvest-themed decorations on their porch.  They’re incredibly useful in the garden, and I thought I’d run through the four seasons of straw bales in the garden, starting in the fall, when it’s easiest to pick them up.

Autumn

After they have exhausted their decorative usefulness, straw bales can be useful structural elements in the vegetable garden.  They can be used as ultra-insulated walls of cold frames or hot beds–I’ve arranged them into a rectangle around a few cold-season crops, like lettuce, spinach, or bok choy, and covered the opening with a plastic sheet to keep them available for harvest well into late fall.  A similar structure, filled with fresh horse manure and topped with potting soil, could keep warm (through the fermenting and decomposing manure) through the winter, providing you with fresh lettuce all winter.

I’ve also used straw bales to build a temporary compost bin.  After stacking them into a workable structure (usually a squarish shape, one bale by one bale, with the corners overlapping a little, two bales tall), I fill the center with yard and garden waste, which is usually spilling out of my over-filled compost bin in the fall.  A bit of high-nitrogen material, such as kitchen waste, manure, or grass clippings, will speed decomposition.  I let a good rain get it adequately damp, and put another bale or two on top to cover the opening.  This heavily insulated pile will continue cooking longer than my open-air bin, and when I build it on a garden bed, I can pull away the bales and spread the partly-finished compost in situ.

Bales can also be broken up into mulch, and a thick coat of coarse straw spread in the fall can protect topsoil by slowing and absorbing rain and melting snow  .

Winter

Straw’s insulating qualities are even more important in the winter.  The cold-frame and hot beds build in autumn will continue producing into winter, and there are other uses, as well.  A structure similar to the compost bin can be build for root storage, with layers of carrots, beets, turnips, or rutabegas piled inside and separated with layers of loose straw.  I haven’t tried this method, as I’m not producing enough food to store during the winter, so attempt it with caution.  I’d advise lining the inside of the bale-house with chicken wire to keep out rodents.

Whole bales can also be used to insulate tender plants through the winter.  I grow artichokes, which are not cold-tolerant enough to survive a Michigan winter, but keeping them well-insulated and close to the house seems to work.  If you keep parsnips or carrots in the ground though winter, covering them with strawbales will make harvest a little easier, at least until everything freezes solid.

Spring

Cold frames can be replanted, and hotbeds can have the spent manure dug out and replaced for a fresh start.  Hotbeds are a great place to start seedings, as bottom heating encourages germination.

As seedlings sprout, cool-season plants can be mulched with straw to supress weeds, keep the soil cool, and prevent mud from splashing up onto your leaf crops.

A muddy garden path is easily remedied with the generous application of straw.  I’ve laid it down a foot thick down the middle of the garden so that I could wear my dress shoes out to the compost pile.

If you turn your compost heap in the spring, chances are it’s a heavy, waterlogged pile.  If you’re not ready to spread it, restack it parfait-style with a 4-8″ layer of fluffed straw every foot or so.  This allows oxygen into the pile, and hastens decomposition.

If you’re into nature, there’s some delight in watching the birds steal straw to build nests.  It’s not quite so delightful to find mice using your straw as a nest, but I’ll avoid that digression.

Summer

By summer, last fall’s straw bales will have started to decay, and the string used to hold them together has probably deteriorated to the point that you couldn’t pick the bale up if you wanted to.  They can be used in place, or broken up for mulch.

When I plant corn, I lay on a thick, loose layer of straw.  This keeps the sun off the soil, so I wait until it’s warmed up, but it seems to prevent birds from pulling up the seedlings.  The corn is determined enough to push through a few inches of straw.

If spring’s hotbeds have cooled sufficiently by melon-planting time, put a few melon plants in each one.  The recently-decomposed horse manure will retain a lot of water and provide the plants with the rich soil they need to produce.  If you have any bales placed on the ground sideways (with the individual straws running perpendicular to the ground), you can poke a hole in them for tomatoes.  If regularly fertilized, they do well with their roots digging into the consistently moist, decomposed straw.  Some of the shorter varieties won’t need staking, as they can spill over the sides of the bale.

When the soil has warmed enough, straw is an ideal mulch.  A well-rotted bale can be pulled apart in “pages”, the thick, matted masses of straw.  These pages are laid down between rows of plants, and are pretty well impenetrable to weed seedlings.  Established weeds will push through, but the shady, moist soil under the straw makes it a lot easier to pull these out.  The straw breaks down very slowly, so it’s ideal for retaining moisture, preventing the rain from washing away soil, and slowing the breakdown of organic material.  By midsummer, my entire garden is covered in a thick layer of straw.

By the end of summer, I’ve usually worked through the straw I’ve collected, regardless of how much I started with.  If I’m planting a fall crop, I’ll clear a bed of straw and add it to the compost pile, where it adds carbon and bulk, absorbs water, and admits oxygen.  If I’m leaving the bed alone after summer harvest, I won’t clear the mulch until the spring.  I occassionally have to pull up some wheat sprouts–from seeds stowing away in the straw–but they don’t put up much of a fight.  Should I ever get the rabbits I dream of, I’ll feed the sprouts to them.  I may sing the praises of stealing your neighbor’s bags of leaves in the fall in a later entry, but I’m comfortable starting my tribute to high-carbon organic mulches with straw.

Advertisements

Jerusalem Artichoke: A Forager’s Failure

November 10, 2008

I’ve been looking for a source for Jerusalem Artichokes for some time.  They grow profusely (to the point that they aren’t recommended in small gardens, where they take over), respond to harvesting with exuberant regrowth, and they serve as a starch, which sounded good to a forager growing sick of steamed greens.  This summer, I thought I had hit the jackpot.  In a scrubby little strip of woods near my house, the path through the middle is lined with plants that bear a convincing similarity to the Jerusalem Artichokes in my field guides–yellow, sunflowerish blooms, hairy, spear-shaped leaves, and thick, tall growth.

Exercising a gardener’s patience, I waited months until our first hard frost, which withers the topgrowth and sweetens the roots.  Using a trowel (I thought hauling a shovel in would look a little suspicious), I traced one of the now-brown stalks down to the earth and dug in, expecting to pull up a thin, sweet-potato sized tuber.  At the end of my stalk, there was a woody root about the size of a golf pencil.

I can’t say if I completely botched the ID, or if this just isn’t a very productive variety.  I’ll be looking through a few wildflower books to see if I can find anything else that fits this description.  I was able to salve my disappointment with some home-grown turnips and butternut squash, with grilled pork loin.  I’ll be thawing some of the wild applesauce to mix in with the leftover squash tomorrow.  After spending the afternoon tossing a compost pile (it was well over my head before I rearranged it), cleaning up some perrenial beds and the herb garden, and stealing bagged leaves from my neighbor’s curbs, I’m ready for winter.

I’ve Got Worms

February 21, 2008

Seeing as I’m writing a weblog on local foods in the dead of winter, I hope I can be forgiven for a slightly off-topic entry. Yesterday, I recieved a belated Christmas gift–a pound of red wriggler composting worms. My in-laws live in Kalamazoo, which would be ground zero for the worm-composting movement, if there were such a thing. The author of Worms Eat My Garbage, now deceased, lived there, and her organization continues to sell worms and vermicomposting supplies. Because this particular species of worm is cold-sensitive, I couldn’t have them sitting on my doorstep until I came home. My exceedingly generous and accomodating father-in-law delivered them on a trip through town.

Vermicomposting Basics

I’m trying to make this weblog beginner-friendly, so I’m going to run through the basics here. If you know anything about composting with worms, this next section is worth skipping.

Unlike the earthworms we’re familiar with in the Great North, red wrigglers spend all of their time very near the surface, where the soil is composed of mostly organic material. Because they don’t burrow and hibernate like earthworms, they won’t survive through a heavy or deep frost. They are, however, well suited for close quarters, and are able to convert an impressive volume of organic waste into “castings”, or worm manure.

My “worm bin”, which I prepared ahead of time, is an opaque Rubbermaid-style storage bin. I filled it about 3/4 full with shredded 2006 income tax instruction forms (available mid-April by the thousands at your local library) and wet the newsprint down. As recommended by Worms Eat My Garbage, I added 3 times the weight of the paper in water, aiming for a damp-not-soggy moisture level. More on this later. The worms “chew” by grinding food up with soil particles in a gizzard, so I added a dead houseplant, with its soil, to provide some grit. On top of it all, I dumped my worms. I left the lid off until the light-sensitive worms retreated into the newsprint bedding. I made my first deposit, burying some moldy home-baked bread under an inch or so of wet, grey paper.

The Process So Far…

The next morning, I eagerly checked in on my worms. Apparently, my bedding was too wet, which provided me with a truly horrifying first morning with my worms. Worms, as it turns out, breathe through their skins, which must be kept moist. If it’s too moist, however, they start to drown. This is why the sidewalks are covered with waterlogged earthworms after a good rain. Not having a sidewalk available, my worms climbed out of their too-wet bedding and congregated along the upper lip of the bin.

Now, I’m not the squeamish type, but hundreds of squirming, bloated redworms are an unpleasant sight, somewhere between a horror film and the sex-ed photos of STDs in their advanced stages. I added some more dry newsprint to balance the moisture level, pushed my worms back into the fray, and hoped for the best. This afternoon, things seemed to be on the level, so I think I’m OK. I hope to find all of the dessicated remains of escaped worms before my wife does.

Good Intentions

The plan with the worm bin, and the connection with the whole local-food thing, is pretty simple. The castings are a nutrient-rich plant food, like any manure. Unlike most animal manures, it can be applied to plants fresh. Also unlike most animal manures, I don’t have to drive ten miles out of the city to get it. This, along with the “worm tea” that can be drained off, will be put to use in my greenhouse to get my seedlings off to an organic start. Last year’s greenhouse seedlings were a pretty pathetic lot, because I didn’t fertilize them. This year, I may have to resort to a dilute chemical fertilizer until my worms get their act together. The most frequently suggested organic alternative, made out of fish waste, is a little scary in terms of heavy metal (lead, mercury, &c.) content, and I’d sooner use a known chemical than an unknown contaminant.

An added benefit is that I’ll be able to continue composting without making the long, long journey through the deep, deep snow to the compost bin at the far end of the yard. A bin in the basement makes for a much more enticing trip, which may result in a more-often-emptied slop bucket. Most of our vegetables come from produce we froze last summer, so there isn’t a lot of waste being produced. Hopefully, our worms can keep up with production. My complimentary book says that my worms can process 1/2 their collective weight in garbage a day, so this should work out.

In Other News

I filled the last of my seed needs at the sales at my local Flowerland, and have thinned my flats of lettuce, spinach, snapdragons, and annual poppies. The asparagus has not yet sprouted, but I think I’m still within their germination window.

As I watch the footage that inspired our nation’s largest-ever meat recall, I had to face my biggest why-aren’t-you-doing-this-already food problem–meat. I gave up vegetarianism a few years ago (for reasons I may get into later) and didn’t develop my meat-buying instincts while I was learning how to shop for myself. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be eating cows that are too sick to walk onto the killing floor, and will finally start choosing local meat when it becomes available at the farmer’s market.

Meanwhile, I am buying increasingly unprocessed cuts at the grocery store. Last week’s shopping trip saw the move from frozen, boneless, skinless chicken breasts to fresh, boned, skinned chicken thighs, and this week I bought a whole bird. I think I’m going to roast it, Thanksgiving-style. I might cut the next one up, depending on how that goes. My aversion to local meat in the past stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know how to handle an entire bird, or unground chuck, or what have you, so I’m going to be ready this year.