Organic Gardening

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5/19/2015

parsnip

Why Parsnips?

The parsnip is an overlooked vegetable. I think this is in part because cookbooks often lump them in with turnips and rutabagas, even though they have nothing in common. Also, the ones in the grocery store are often old and slimy on the top. Mostly, they are just less a part of the culinary landscape than potatoes and carrots and beets. This is a shame, since parsnips are a delicious and versatile vegetable, and it is doubly so for the avid gardener or homesteader.

They have a number of qualities that recommend them as a staple crop. They are, as mentioned, delicious and versatile, lending themselves to roasting, sauteing, mashing, or pretty much anything you might do with a potato. In my opinion they are more palatable than beets or rutabagas or even carrots. Once established they are vigorous, hearty plants with few disease issues. They store beautifully in the cellar or in the ground. Though they are biennial, they are easy to overwinter in sound enough condition to save seed.

So why aren’t they more widely grown? Other than ignorance about how awesome they are, the greatest difficulty is germination. Trying to get a good, even bed of parsnips can frustrate even the most experienced and dedicated gardener. It seems like no matter how heavily they are seeded or how diligently they are watered, there is always half a row where few or none germinate. But the rewards come harvest make them worth growing.

How to Grow

Parsnips are less prone to getting fibrous than carrots, so the main storage crop can be planted in the spring. Unfortunately, they do not reach peak flavor until they’ve been through some frosts, so they aren’t the best root to eat during the summer.

They will give some sort of crop even in soil that isn’t particularly fertile, but they’ll do much better in a mineralized, well prepared bed. Though they don’t feed as heavily as cabbages, like all garden veggies they do appreciate nitrogen, whether from seed meal, high quality compost, or a green manure. A lighter soil with relatively fewer stones will increase the number of perfectly shaped roots, but this is primarily an aesthetic concern.

Fresh, vigorous seed is even more important with parsnips than with other vegetables. Though I routinely order a large quantity of kale or beet seed, which I use over several years, parsnip seed does not hold its quality, even when stored in a refrigerator with desiccant. Luckily, it’s reasonably cheap, so buy plenty, and buy new stuff each season. Better yet, save a couple dozen choice roots and produce your own seed.

I’ve never managed perfect germination, but the best results have used a straightforward approach. I make shallow rows eighteen inches apart with the edge of my weeding hoe, into which I sow the seed, putting down a lot more than my intended final spacing of one plant every four inches. I cover this with fine compost, potting mix, or some other light, water-retaining soil, and then I water these rows every day. After they have germinated and started growing any extras can be thinned out.

Once established, parsnips are very easily maintained; simply mulch or hoe to keep down weeds, water, and watch them grow. They are theoretically susceptible to some pests and diseases, but only the carrot rust fly has ever been a problem for me, and even they seem to prefer carrots. Floating row covers would limit them, but in my experience they do so little damage to parsnips it’s hardly worth the bother.

How to Harvest and Store

It’s best to wait until after a couple frosts to dig parsnips, since this helps them start sweetening up, and their flavor will continue to improve for months. They can be a little tricky to harvest, particularly if they are planted in dense soil. It’s tempting to reach down and tug them out by their tops, but they are too brittle for this to be effective. Taking the time to first loosen the soil around them with a shovel makes it possible to get them out intact, which is critical if they are going into long term storage.

Another potential issue with harvesting parsnips is their potential to irritate bare skin. When the sap from the vegetative portion of a parsnip gets onto skin, and when it is then exposed to direct sunlight, it becomes a nasty irritant. The fancy word for this is phytophotodermatitis. The less fancy explanation is that it makes your skin get covered in gross boils that take forever to really disappear. I’ve never had a problem in the garden, but I did experience it when I mowed a patch of wild parsnips without taking the proper precautions, like wearing a long sleeved shirt.

Parsnips are among the best keeping vegetables. In a root cellar kept reasonably cold and humid they’ll easily last well into spring. They can even overwinter in the garden - our yearly low is around -20, and they still were fine in the spring - though mice and voles may gnaw on the tops, and it makes it impossible to get them until the ground has thawed.

How to Enjoy

The easiest way to prepare parsnips is to dice them and roast them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until they are tender. Putting a piece of foil over the baking dish will speed up the process, but it isn’t necessary. After being roasted or steamed they can be mashed. They can be grated and made into fritters or hash browns.

Parsnips have a caloric density and palatability similar to that of potatoes. They are less prone to diseases and pests than almost any other root vegetable. They are so hardy and compact that saving seed from them is not an onerous proposition, and purchased seed is cheap. In other words, they should make up a significant portion of any serious gardener’s yearly harvest.


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5/14/2015

Dandelion Parts Illustration 

Even though we now live near a food market after years in the remote countryside, we still strive to grow as much of our food as we can and we enjoy the thrill of harvesting it from the wild. We look forward to dandelion season, not only because we crave something fresh after a winter of stored vegetables, but because we associate collecting their edible leaves with spring renewal. To us, their tangy flavor in raw, wilted, and cooked dishes is synonymous with the fresh things that come from the earth when the snow melts, the soil warms, and we are reconnected to the living land.

Taraxacum officinale has a long history as a valued medicinal and a nutritious food. It is also a ubiquitous weed, turning up in lawns, pastures, roadsides, and in the proverbial waste places. Perennial plants grow from a tenacious, hard taproot, white inside and brown without, from which sprout jagged, dark green basal foliage, tangy and refreshingly bitter at first, aging to decidedly bitter. Buy late spring bright, yellow flowers bloom atop hollow stems, followed by fluffy fruits dispersed by the wind over vast areas, thus assuring the establishment of ever more plants.

Bitter properties throughout the plant, but most powerfully present in its roots, are responsible for claims of its vast curative powers, first recorded by an Arabian doctor in the tenth century. Preparations from the plants roots and leafy tops were used to treat kidney and liver disorders, and to increase mobility from stiffness in cases of degenerative joint diseases. A potent diuretic, it earned the country name “piddle bed.”

Nutritionally, dandelions are a powerhouse plant. Low in water content but rich in protein, sugar, vitamins A and C, calcium, and minerals, their leafy greens are at the top of the list of valued edible weeds. They rank higher than lettuce (cos or romine) in protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and iron, and much higher in nearly all vitamins and minerals.*

Harvesting and Cooking with Wild Dandelion Greens

Look for harvestable dandelion greens, not in lawns or fields where they are crowded and small, but in rich soil where the ground is deep, porous, and humusy and in your own garden.

To harvest take a stout sharp knife and plunge it straight down next to the young green leaves until you reach the plant’s crown. Cut across, slicing the crown from the root, but leaving the top growth intact to facilitate cleaning. Shake out each bunch as you cut it to loosen the dirt and debris, then pull of the outside damaged or yellow leaves. Swish the bunch through several buckets of cold water until no dirt is apparent in the water, then bring the bunches indoors to finish preparing them for use. Once you know where to hunt for the best greens it should not take more than 10 or 15 minutes to dig and clean them.

To prepare them for eating fresh or cooked, trim off stem ends, wash leaves in fresh, cold water, squeeze dry (don’t be afraid to squeeze them hard-they are quite resilient), then either leave whole or cut into bit-sized pieces, depending on how you want to use them.

To use early in the season, add them to salads. Later use them in stir fry dishes, where they can take the place of broccoli rabe or rapini, a mustardy turnip green.

*”A comparison of nutritional properties of edible weed,” A. D. Gonzales, R. Janke, and E. H. Rapoport, Kansas State University, 2001.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Jo Ann Gardner is a noted plantswoman, lecturer, and author of 7 books on fruits, herbs, the cottage garden, and most recently Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She and her husband live in the Adirondacks where they maintain a small farm with extensive gardens. She may be reached through her website, www.JoAnnGarnderBooks.com.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



5/13/2015

garlic 

We had a problem garden bed. It was the furthest bed from the house, last on the water line, and in the hottest part of the yard. I planted there every year — squash vines, potatoes, beans, all the heat loving crops — and they never did well. It must be the soil, I decided, and spent a year nourishing the bed with all sorts of treats. I kept the chicken tractor on it for an extra few weeks. I spread bunny manure. I fluffed it with organic matter. It was lovely soil—but nothing liked being there. I planted four blueberry bushes, thinking to turn the back bed into a visual hedge, but they were not happy, even with extra water. I was totally stumped and ready to just turn into over to fennel and rosemary and lemon balm, three plants that never die in my yard, but I hated giving up the growing space. What is the problem? I thought, riding my bike out to work on Sunbow Farm one morning.

The problem, I thought, was not with the soil. Or the heat. Or even the end of the water line….these could all be overcome. It was a dry bed by late July….and what wants a dry bed in late July? What would be the solution here? Garlic. Garlic is clearly the solution.

First, garlic is planted in October, which allows me to run the Chicken Tractor over the bed for a month, at least, before planting. This means, also, that the tractor is back in use several weeks before the potato beds are emptied, thus making the chickens more useful. Because it is the last bed, the chickens can still hop down into their summer run around the compost pile in the afternoon, but spend the evenings and mornings hard at work on the bed.

Second, garlic grows in the early winter and spring, when the bed has always been productive. The rains keep the soil moist all winter, and the residual moisture, along with the far end of the soaker hose, holds out until the garlic begins to dry down. This year, because of an early cold snap, I covered the garlic bed with a cloche made from tomato cages, laid on their sides, and a sheet of plastic. The plants loved it!

Third, it simplified the bed rotation system. When you plant seasonally per bed, garlic is hard to work in. It comes out just when seeds stop germinating in my bed, even on the potting table. Thus, it sat half empty until the next spring, as there was always a few weird plants that I had tucked into the other half of the bed, because I had them and they needed a home. When garlic became it’s own bed, this confusion went away.

Finally, what was the biggest problem is now the biggest benefit. The bed dries down just when the garlic is also drying down. I do not have to cut off water to a partial bed. I do not have to mess with damp garlic. I do not have to hand water part of a bed to keep other crops alive during the late July heat wave. I just let it be. After I pull the crop, I add some organic matter, like more straw and rabbit manure, and leave the bed alone until late August, when the chickens move in.

The problem became the solution. It was so simple. Why did it take me so long to figure it out?

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog at 21ststreeturbanhomestead.blogspot.com. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to www.julialont.com and www.bluecamaspress.com.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 



5/12/2015

 ladybug eating an aphid

My motto for having a healthy garden is Feed the Soil and Build the Ecosystem. Feeding the soil results in healthier plants, thus healthier people who eat those plants. Healthy plans are better protected from insect predation. The first plants to succumb are the weaker plants with unbalanced nutrients.

It is good to mix things up a bit. If insects are looking for plants they like to eat, they will naturally be attracted to monocultures first. All the signals that plants send, through sight, smell, color, etc., are magnified in a monoculture. When plants are grown in a mixture, sometimes called a guild, the signals from so many different plants together confuse the insects. Information on companion planting suggests things to plant together. The three sisters—corn, beans, and squash—are an example of that practice.

Some of the things you can put in as companion plants are especially suited to attracting insects that will eat the larvae of the insects that want to eat your plants. There are charts available that will show what to plant to attract specific insects that will feed on the insects you want less of in your garden. However, if you follow some simple guidelines, those beneficials will begin to show up anyway. This is the “build the ecosystem” part of my motto.

The first guideline is to not use chemicals. They will kill the good insects as well as the bad. The next thing to know is to not till your garden all at once. Having permanent paths and permanent beds allows you to only have the soil exposed in whatever part of your garden you are working in at the time. The rest of the garden is left undisturbed, including the habitat for the beneficials. Also, the toads need somewhere to escape to. According to Sally Jean Cunningham in Great Garden Companions, one toad can consume over 10,000 insects, including slugs.

Another guideline is to let things flower. Don’t fret if your basil and sage flower before you have gotten every bit cut for culinary use. Enjoy the insects that come to feed on the nectar. Those are the same ones that will be keeping the harmful insects in check. If you have been following my work, you know that I plant a lot of cover crops. They flower in the natural progression of things and that’s where I often find beneficial insects.

The next guideline would be to plant specifically to attract beneficial insects. Some common suggestions are to plant borage with cabbage family plants and dill with your cucumbers and squash. Although you can look for specific plants, such as tansy, fennel, and mountain mint, having a mix of herbs and flowers in and around your garden will help. If you have spearmint growing, you know it can easily grow past its boundaries. Let it wander to an area you don’t mind devoting to spearmint and watch what happens when it is left alone to flower freely. The insects love it!

Permanent plantings, possibly in your borders, serve as good overwintering places for beneficial insects, as well as shady places for toad homes. You will find more ideas about attracting beneficials at Homeplace Earth. Once you understand what it would take to attract beneficials to your garden and work toward that end, you can relax and watch for them to come. Sit back and enjoy the show!

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


5/11/2015

Gardening in containers can be a lot of fun, and I have found many situations where container gardening was the answer to a particular gardening dilemma. Using various containers absolutely solved many gardening issues including adding color to patio areas, creating planting areas where flower beds are non-existent, controlling soil pH, making cold- or sun/heat-sensitive plants portable, and water conservation.

For me, gardening with containers seriously began many years ago when my husband and I moved into our current house. We decided that part of what we wanted to do with the back patio was to add some lattice on the ends and across part of the width in order to create an outside room (sort of) and some privacy from the neighbors since our only fence at the time was chain link – great for keeping things in and out of the yard, but useless for privacy.

Privacy Screen of Fragrant Flowers

We wanted to grow vines on the lattice to offer additional screening, plus a cooling effect from the plants, which is very necessary during the summer. Natural cooling helps us reduce our cooling expenses during the hot summers of the Southern California desert. Each end of the patio was adjacent to planting beds so we were able to plant our vines – trumpet vine and honeysuckle – directly into the ground. Across the width of the patio was a different story – it was a good two feet from the lattice to the ground. Our solution was to use large containers as planting beds. The plants we chose for the containers were an evergreen vine called  Star Jasmine, which quickly grew up the lattice creating the desired privacy effect, and have provided us with intoxicatingly fragrant springtime blooms ever since. We love hanging out in our hammock when they are in bloom.

Berries

For a few years I had blueberries in containers and they have done very well. I recently transplanted them into my raised bed garden and they are doing nicely there as well. In both situations, I am able to give the blueberries the acidic soil they require. The native soil in the desert is alkaline and it is a constant battle to make it acidic enough for blueberries, plus the containers and raised beds make managing the soil easy.

A few years ago I also purchased a selection of Kiwi Berries. I planted them in the desert soil along with some organic amendments. They struggled to survive, and I lost nearly half of them. The following year, I dug up the survivors and planted them in large containers with organic potting, mix. They have done quite nicely growing lengthy vines. I am hoping that next year they will begin to produce berries.

Colorful Flowers

A couple of years ago we decided to enlarge the size of our front porch, along with widening our driveway, and create yet another enjoyable outdoor space where we could sit and watch passersby or enjoy a cup of coffee and a good book. To create some interest, I wanted to include many types of containers – mostly made from wood, plastic or ceramics – of various shapes and sizes in which to house a number of colorful flowers and maybe some edibles as well. Again, using organic potting mix, I chose a variety of mostly perennial flowering plants – hybrid tea roses, miniature roses, lavender, a Canna, a living Christmas tree, salvia, assorted succulents, sweet William, pincushion flower, and some bulbs. To add an extra splash of color I also add a few annuals to the mix – currently pansies. The container plantings have more than exceeded my expectations – gorgeous colors and textures – and I am always getting compliments on how inviting my front porch has become.

Fruit Trees

Also included in the grouping of containers on the front porch are three dwarf fruit trees – a Meyers lemon, a Bearss Lime, and a Negrone fig. Since these small trees can be sensitive to the desert’s cold winters, they can be easily transported to a space in the garage when temperatures plummet.

Small Spaces

The benefits of using containers are many. They offer the ability to have a flower or edible garden no matter how small your outdoor space is. In earlier years, I spent time living in apartments, but always had a small patio or balcony. These places offered great opportunities for container gardening to add some color and to grow a few veggies as well – tomatoes and strawberries were especially successful.

Water Conservation

It’s not new news that California is in a historical drought. Many folks are being forced to restrict their water use, especially for landscape purposes. Instead of having a yard full of water-hogging trees, shrubs, and lawns, people are learning to plant more water-conserving landscapes. One way of keeping a few thirsty plants and not use a lot of water is to plant them in non-porous containers and use them as accents or focal points in strategic locations near entries or patios, while letting the rest of the yard be drought tolerant.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page



4/29/2015

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Read Whistling Duck Farm, Part 1

Whistling Duck farm store interior

Another year-round endeavor for Mary and Vince Alionis is their farm store. They currently maintain a self-serve farm store in a small building beside the highway, but a new and much larger one is being constructed inside an adjacent barn. Plus, they’ve recently launched a new fermented foods business. (Editor's note: Whistling Duck's new farm store is up and running and pictured in this post.)

“Now we make kraut,” said Mary, “so that’s another winter gig with a lot of winter cropping. It’s also an important part of our long-term plan. We took over a kraut business about two years ago from a friend named Kirsten Shockey. She wanted to get out of the business of making and retailing fermented foods and concentrate on writing and teaching about fermentation. And her new book, Fermented Vegetables, is great by the way. And this has turned out very well for us because it doesn’t get any easier to start a kraut business than to have an expert give you theirs. How can you turn that down?”

Taking on a new operation this time intensive did mean that Mary put on one more hat when she already was probably wearing too many hats. But both Mary and Vince are very upbeat about the potential this undertaking represents. And it definitely improves their conversion ratio.

“A couple months ago I had several hundred pounds of radishes that all came out at once because someone had seeded too many,” said Mary. “But I realized I could ferment them, so we made about twenty-five or thirty gallons of fermented radishes of various kinds. And they’re incredible… just so good. And that’s something we wouldn’t have had a market for and would have tilled in. Now we’re turning it into value added products that will sell.”

Vince commented that the fermentation path also fit well with their existing approach from a nutritional standpoint. Whistling Duck has been catering to the juicing and smoothie crowd for a number of years by growing nutrient dense veggies and greens like lambsquarters and purslane. So fermented foods fits right in. “It’s a great market,” he said, “very cutting edge. We’re doing something creative in the kitchen, but we’re not encouraging people to buy jams or cookies. It’s fermented. Probiotic. It’s good for you, so there’s nothing negative about it.”

Whistling Duck farm store exterior

Mary says they have no problem selling their krauts and fermented products. Because they had been selling the products before they took over production, they had a built in customer base, which has been steadily expanding along with the rapidly growing fermented food market nationwide. Mary also has found that creative marketing can bring significant benefits.

“We’re creating so many different ferments and coming up with our own recipes,” she explained. “One of them I put together recently was an attempt to make something seriously good for you. It had root parsley, burdock, nettles, turmeric… a lot of medicinal stuff. Unfortunately it didn’t taste very good. And I couldn’t just throw it out because there was nothing wrong with it. Instead, I cut it in with some plain kraut to dilute it, called it ‘the healer’ and charged more for it. It sold out immediately.”

In addition to it’s market potential, both Mary and Vince are excited about the fermentation business because of the role it plays in their new five year vision.

“Our end play is to get our store developed so we can scale back the super intensive farming gig,” said Mary. “We want to have a local store that sells our products and products from all sorts of other local people. Our five year plan is to not be doing all these markets and not be doing wholesale, and instead keeping it all right here. Keeping our seed garlic, and still growing veggies, but selling them here in the store. We have a tendency to just keep doing it all, but we need to scale back because we’re getting old. And if we simplify things, that also will make it easier to find people who can keep it going.”

Mary and Vince make no bones about how tough it might be to find the right people to help run their farm and farm store. But like with everything else they’ve done since they got started back in 1991, they’re trying to keep an open mind and look at all the possible alternatives.

“This property is actually two tax lots,” explained Mary. “The house sits on one tax lot and the fields are another one. And I would love to get things set up so we could build a house on the field lot and have another farmer working here with us… have someone else living here on the farm and provide housing for them. Because housing is usually the sticky wicket. And I’m not talking about just a bunk house, but a real home so another farmer or farm family could live here and work with us. Who knows what that would end up looking like. I’m not into a business partnership, but I wouldn’t have any problem saying, okay, we own this property and we will lease it to you, and you run this aspect of a farm. You do the green vegetable production or whatever. They can run their aspect of the farm, and we can run ours. It may not go that way, but I’m good with all that. The main thing would be that we’re interdependent but we remain individuals.”

In the meantime, Whistling Duck Farm will continue down the path it’s been on since it got started. And Vince and Mary Alionis will keep digging in the dirt together, just as they were when they met so many years ago.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: Interior view of Whistling Duck Farm’s new farm store. The recently renovated barn that provides Mary and Vince with a high quality on-farm retail store..

(Bottom) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: Fermented foods are rising in popularity because of their nutritional benefits. Whistling Duck is well positioned to benefit from this trend after assuming control of a local fermentation business and creating a value-added outlet for much of their produce. The next step is adding a certified kitchen to their new farm store to handle their ferments and other value-added endeavors.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


4/28/2015

Chipper

Every year I have some wintertime yard chores to do, which includes pruning a few branches from the numerous trees on my half-acre property. Most of the time it consists of minor pruning of a few fruit trees and some butterfly bushes. After running these trimmings through my chipper/shredder, they make a great addition to my compost bins. Sometimes, like this year, I did some major pruning of not only the fruit trees and butterfly bushes, but also some olive, silk, and assorted pine trees – way too much for my compost bins. Luckily, I also have a need for mulch – especially for covering the pathways in in one of my raised-bed garden areas. Here are two of the ways I recycle my yard waste into useful items for my garden.

Chipping and Shredding

Mulch

When I was done pruning everything over the winter, I ended up with a very large pile of branches to chip/shred into usable mulch. I kept getting side-tracked with other things to do and finally got around to ridding my yard of this huge pile just a couple of weeks ago. My husband was getting concerned that the city’s code enforcement folks might come after us for a fire hazard. We pulled the Troy-Bilt chipper/shredder out of the shed, filled up the fuel tank, put on our safety goggles and gloves, and started it up – it only took a couple of pulls after being stored for over a year.

It took us a few hours over the course of two days to run all of the waste materials though the noisy machine. We had a few branches that were too big for the chipper/shredder’s 2-inch diameter maximum. Those branches we cut to length for use in the fireplace next winter. The end result was several bags of beautiful mulch for a 2-inch thick layer on my garden pathways – and it was free!

Composting

Compost

Adding organic material to the soil in the form of compost is great for healthier veggies, flowers, shrubs, and trees. You can buy compost at nurseries and garden centers, but why not make it yourself? For the most part, the ingredients can be found right in your own kitchen and yard – especially those pruned branches, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and chicken manure (if you happen to have chickens like I do).

Several years ago, I participated in a Master Composter training program held by the Mojave Desert & Mountain Recycling Authority/Master Composters. Upon completion of the program, I became a certified Master Composter. Included in the experience was a promise to pass along what I learned to other residents of Southern California’s High Desert region and beyond.

Composting is nature's way of recycling plant materials into a product that can be used to enrich the soil and nourish plants. By adding compost, sandy soils retain water better, heavy soils are loosened and drainage is improved, and plant health is improved. Composting reduces the amount of waste discarded into the trash, thus sending less waste to landfills.

Composting is partly art and partly science. Compost piles are actually microbial farms - bacteria are the most numerous decomposers and are the first to break down plant tissues. Later, fungi, protozoans, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, earthworms and others join in to do their part. Anything that grows is potential food for these decomposers. They use carbon from leaves and woody waste, and nitrogen from items like grass, weeds, manures, and fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen.

Materials containing higher carbon content are considered "browns," while materials with higher nitrogen content are considered "greens." Recipes for the best compost can vary, but a good rule-of-thumb is a mix of 50-percent greens and 50-percent browns by volume.

Green materials include fresh weeds and plants, green prunings, grass clippings, horse, cow, chicken and rabbit manures, and fruit and vegetable trimmings.

Brown materials include fallen leaves, dry weeds and grass, chopped prunings and twigs (such as those I used for my garden mulch), wood chips, hay or straw, and cold wood ashes.

Other materials that can be composted include egg shells, old flower bouquets, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, paper towels, napkins and newspaper – I only add paper products that are natural and not bleached, and newspapers that use soy-based ink.

Materials that should not be used in composting include oleander bushes, tamarisk/salt cedar, invasive weeds, meat, fish, dairy products, bones, fats, bread, large pieces of wood, pressure-treated wood, barbecue ashes, dog or cat wastes,  and materials with spines or thorns such as rose branches and cactus.

The more surface area the microorganisms have to work on, the faster the materials will decompose, so it's a good idea to run large pieces of waste such as branches through a chipping or shredding process before adding them to the compost pile. The microbes also need moisture and air. The best moisture level for the microbes and for faster composting should be that of a wrung out sponge. It is usually necessary to occasionally add water to the compost pile. It should also be turned periodically to get more air into the center. About once a week, I add water to my compost bins. I turn it with a pitch fork whenever I add new materials, which is at least a couple times a week. Most of the contents I add are kitchen waste, chicken manure, wood shavings, straw, leaves and pine needles, and occasionally wood chips from pruning my trees.

Large compost piles will insulate themselves and hold the heat given off by the microbes. The pile's center is warmer than its edges. The ideal compost pile is about 3-feet by 3-feet by 3-feet. Smaller piles have trouble retaining heat, while larger piles don't allow enough air into the center. Of course these proportions are only important for making compost quickly. Slower composting requires no exact proportions.

There are a number of ways to compost - some take less time and effort, some take more. The main things to consider are how much time you have to spend managing the pile, how much green waste your yard or kitchen generates, and how quickly you want the finished product.  Two common methods include holding units and turning units. Each method has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Holding units are the "no fuss" method where you add as you go. You can build or purchase a bin approximately 3-feet square, or just start a pile. Fill it up as materials become available - when it's full, start another pile - water and turn occasionally. I use two vented black bins, called Earth Machines, which have a removable lid on the top, and a door at the bottom for removing the finished product at the bottom of the pile. I also use two "Compost Orbs," which I purchased because they were supposed to be easy to roll them to where ever I needed them. They roll nicely when empty, or full of dry leaves, but not when they are full of heavy moist compost. I like my Earth Machines better. There are many models of compost bins available, check them out and see what works best for you.

Turning units are the "active pile" method. These are usually a series of three or more units that allow garden wastes to be turned on a regular schedule. These are more appropriate for gardeners with a larger volume of waste, or for those who want to produce compost faster. Each bin should be about one cubic yard in size. Fill one bin by layering green materials with brown. Water the piles as you add layers. The pile will probably heat up - when it cools after a few days, turn the pile into an empty bin and water again, continue until the pile no longer heats up and materials are decomposed.


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