Tag Archive | Compost

What is Soil, Anyway?

All soils are composed of roughly equal quantities of weathered rock particles and the spaces between them, along with a small but absolutely crucial amount of organic matter. The different types of soil are defined by the particle size of the rocks — sand, clay, or silt — and how much of each you have.

Sand particles are large enough to be clearly visible, and you can feel them as grit when you rub the soil between your fingers. The spaces between them are big, so they keep soil open, providing good drainage, and there is lots of room for oxygen. When there is too much sand in the mix (the problem I have at our lake cottage!), soil cannot hold water, and nutrients wash away.

Clay particles are tiny. You can’t see them, but you can feel them as sort of slippery when the soil is wet. The spaces between them are very small, so they hold water and nutrients for a long time. But that very smallness can make it hard for plant roots to get at the goodies. Soils that contain too much clay water-log when wet, and tend to turn rock hard when dry.

Silt falls between sand and clay. Particles are still quite small, but the spaces between them aren’t as tight as in clay, so drainage is much better.

Loam is the garden ideal, the rock part composed of roughly 40 percent each silt and sand, with 20 percent clay, which is just enough to hold water and nutrients without causing problems. Most gardens fall short of this Shangri-La, tending more toward clay or sand, based largely on the geological history of the area where they are located.

Never Too Much Compost

The-Composting-Circle-of-LifeUnless your soil falls into the ideal, you’ll want to consider amending your soil. Compost, compost, and more compost can only do good — assuming there’s nothing damaging in it. You know the homemade sort is fine, but don’t make hasty assumptions about the stuff you buy.

In its backyard incarnation, compost is the glorious refutation of “garbage in, garbage out.” You put in banana peels, egg shells, and dead flowers; out comes the basic building block of healthy soil. But not everything nasty is capable of transformation. Some commercial compost is made from sewage sludge, which often contains heavy metals that composting does not remove. Other large-scale producers might use paper bleached with dioxin. And some sellers may offer ‘compost’ that is actually nothing more than partially composted bark or sawdust.

digging-in-the-dirt

Nicely enriched soil

These products are almost all carbon, though they can look very much like compost made from a proper mixture of carbon and nitrogen. They take nitrogen from the soil in order to finish decomposing, and when they’re done they don’t give much back except improvements in texture.

On the other hand, many commercial compost makers are environmental heroes, entrepreneurs who saw the diamonds hidden in rough stuff like fish waste. When in doubt, just ask — and don’t buy from anybody who won’t give you an ingredient list.

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Improve Your Soil by Raking Less

by Terry Ettinger

1024px-Listí_na_hrázi_rybníkaIf you dread the annual fall leaf-raking marathon, I have good news for you: Raking and collecting leaves every autumn is a tradition without scientific basis. Research has proven that mowing leaves into your lawn can improve its vigor, and observation shows that unraked leaves in planting beds don’t smother shade-tolerant perennials. Based upon research at several universities, the organic matter and nutrients from leaves mown into lawn areas has been proven to improve turf quality. At Michigan State, researchers set a rotary mower to cut at a height of 3 inches and then mowed an 18-inch-deep layer of leaves into test plots. That’s the equivalent of 450 pounds of leaves per 1,000 square feet. The tests resulted in improved soil and healthy lawns with few remnant leaves visible the following spring.

You can achieve similar results if you set your mower to cut at the same height as in the Michigan State study, and mow at least once a week during peak leaf fall when your lawn reaches a height of 4 inches. Leaves shred most efficiently when slightly damp, so mow after a light dew. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will never rake another leaf and improve the quality of your soil. Build planting beds with leaves. Under trees or in other shady spots where a lawn won’t grow, you can create planting beds from fallen leaves as a source of soil-building organic matter. Shredded leaves applied as mulch protect tree roots from heat and cold and retain soil moisture during dry spells. Some gardeners believe that excess leaves can harbor insects or disease, but I have experienced no such problems in my garden.

autumn-494390_960_720After we bought our property, I created planting beds where the leaves would naturally collect on our densely shaded and sparse front lawn. It’s been 15 years since I’ve raked a single leaf dropped by these trees. Instead, the leaves settle among the hellebores, epimediums, Japanese forest grass, hostas, and spring-flowering bulbs, where they decompose over time, just like on the forest floor. Easy, ecological, and fiscally responsible To treat leaves as trash is both environmentally foolish and financially ruinous. Currently, many municipalities encourage residents to rake leaves to the curb for collection, but before they are collected, heavy rains often wash the leaves into catch basins. There, they decompose and release phosphorus and nitrogen into streams and rivers that flow through the community. These excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms during the summer, which result in lower oxygen levels, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic species to survive.

Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower. Sprinkle the leaves with a 1- pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden. Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay. Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.

Municipalities, both large and small, spend thousands, even millions, of dollars each year to collect, transport, and process autumn leaves, tying up resources that could be used elsewhere in our communities. If we all keep our leaves on our properties, we will improve our gardens, save money, and enhance the environment we all share. Your own source of free fertilizer A little effort can supply an organic source of nutrients for your plants. Here are two ways to use your leaves:

  1. Pile composting for mixed borders
  • Rake the leaves into loose piles or in wire bins about 4 feet square within your borders.
  • Mix in a few shovelfuls of soil, and add 20 to 30 gallons of water to aid decomposition.
  • Pull the piles or bins apart in the spring, and spread the decayed leaves throughout the border
  • Cover the decayed leaves with a 1-inch-deep layer of fresh mulch.

2. Sheet composting for annual beds

  • Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower.
  • Sprinkle the leaves with a 1-pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden.
  • Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay.
  • Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.

Rhubarb Season is here

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tom Wentzel

UntitledThis is my first rhubarb harvest this year. There was one more, but I ate it. We all have bunches of recipes for using rhubarb so I won’t go there.

Chinese records from 2700 BC record its medicinal use. Marco Polo documented its use, but I’m not sure if he introduced it to Europe. A while ago, I visited Old World Wisconsin. In one of the Germany heritage houses there was a string of, what I thought, were chicken bones. It was dried rhubarb! Many of the historical uses that I have read seem to be medicinal, rather that culinary.

My first picking didn’t have that lip puckering sourness of later season harvests. The sourness is due to the pH (acidity) which is in the range of 3.1 – 3.2. For reference, fresh lemon juice has a pH of about 2. Adding sugar doesn’t “neutralize” the acidity, it simply covers it up.

Rhubarb leaves have a reputation as being toxic. This is due to the relatively high concentration of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid’s primary effects can be stomach irritation and kidney problems. Ten pounds of leaves would be required to deliver a lethal dose. Kitchen pot cleaners such as Bar Keepers Friend and ZUD use oxalic acid as the primary active ingredient.

Uses for Rhubarb leaves:

  • Use them as a mulch.
  • They can be composted in limited quantities.
  • GREAT for leaf castings
  • I have seen recipes for rhubarb leaf concoctions as insecticides and repellents. These have been anecdotal, their effectiveness has not been verified.

I will break my promise not to talk recipes. Here’s mine: Peel, then eat.

Expert’s Tip: Plants and Poultry

Scott Reuss, Marinette County UW-Extension Horticulture Educator

Poultry are generally not an integral part of a garden design process.  However, for many rural (and a seemingly increasing number of city) gardeners, poultry do take part in a symbiosis of systems that allow for distinctly improved home food production capacity.  Since National Poultry Day is celebrated on March 19, let’s review some of the roles that poultry can safely play in a plant management system.

First, let’s think recycling.  The classic reduce, reuse, recycle theme is lived out almost daily when you successfully integrate poultry and plants and the neat part is that it goes both directions.  Nearly all poultry species are very proficient at utilizing fruit and vegetable waste products that come either from your garden or your kitchen, or the ones that didn’t quite stay in great shape in storage.  These types of feeds not only provide basic nutrient and energy needs, but also provide the types of compounds often missing in formulated feeds.  Recycled plant material, along with insects and other living plant tissue the birds may be able to harvest, help allow the meat and eggs coming from those birds to have the flavor, color, and textural profiles which many people crave.

Plants get into the recycling act, too.  Poultry manure and litter make great fertilizer, providing all the nutrients that plants need – albeit not always in perfect proportions.  However, there is the chance for disease or parasite transfer when utilizing manure in the garden.  We need to remember some general precautions to minimize such risks and keep ourselves safe.  The key words are time and proximity.

Proximity is pretty easy to consider.  If you are applying manure to a garden area in which you are growing fruits or vegetables, you are increasing the risk of health issues.  That is pretty simple.  However, it does not mean that you cannot or should not do so.  This is where time comes into play.  Try to follow the 120 day rule, if possible.  After placing a manure product into or onto your garden soil, do not harvest fruits or vegetables from that area for 120 days.

Yes, the 120 day rule creates timing issues for us Wisconsinites, as well as the Yoopers I often assist.  Generally, we need to apply manure in the fall to truly minimize risk in next year’s crop. However, we may be able to sneak in early-spring applications in areas which grow full-season crops, especially if they are above-ground or off-the ground crops (sweet corn, trellised vegetables, etc…).  Another way to minimize risk is to compost these products first, which adds in extra time and also decreases nitrogen management issues due either to burn potential of the manure or of too much carbon loading occurring if you use a wood product based litter.

Most poultry can serve in-season or end-of-season roles in the garden, as well.  Ducks can help you manage certain types of plant pests (insects and slugs mostly) in non-edible garden areas. Geese can serve as weed managers, as they are very good grazers.  Guinea fowl are very good insect eaters and are even known to eat ticks, but expect that these noisy critters will create issues if you have any neighbors within earshot.

Chickens are certainly the most common and have both risks and rewards in-season.  Their scratching tendencies can help you at the end of the season, as you can turn your flock into your completed gardens and let them find insects, edible plant material, and do some shallow tillage for you that minimizes some weed issues.  However, you may often find yourself muttering, if not outright hollering and chasing them, about their exceptional ability to move mulch from around landscaped areas if they get out or figure out how to get past your fencing.  They can also cause issues for young plants, potted or containerized plants, and some other areas if they achieve accessing them.

We cannot delve into all aspects of managing poultry and plants together or separately.  A few other points, though.  For the plants, make sure you are thinking through nutrient needs, nutrient loading, and your rotations.  You can maximize the benefit of the manure by placing it into areas which are going to need the most nitrogen the next year (sweet corn, potatoes, crucifer crops) and you can also minimize risks by not placing it into areas which will be hosting shorter-season contamination vulnerable crops such as greens, root vegetables, or ground-touching vine crops.

If you are considering adding poultry, do some research first and don’t succumb to buying those really cute chicks you see at a local store some shopping Saturday.  First, make sure you can legally have poultry in your municipality – contact either general municipal office or zoning department, if you have one.  Most rural areas are fine, but many cities and villages either restrict species, numbers, or sex of poultry allowed; or do not allow them, at all.

Second, you have to have a livestock premise identification number to house poultry.  It is free and easy to obtain, by going to http://wiid.org and having your location information and species of animals being housed.  Other points to consider are to be honest with yourself about why you want poultry, as the answer to that question will affect what you get, and how you house them.  Get good management information and housing suggestions by visiting your UW-Extension office, or go online to either the appropriate UW-Extension links below, or another University’s site. Below are two to take a look at:

http://fyi.uwex.edu/poultry/ UW Poultry Specialist Ron Kean’s main page

http://richland.uwex.edu/agriculture/poultry-and-rabbits/   Richland County UW-Ext. web page

If I were to start into actual poultry management, this article would become WAY too long.  So, please do refer to the web pages above, or contact Ron Kean or Adam Hady through their web pages above, or agents like myself and we will help you get the information you need to start your poultry adventure.

Don’t get rid of those leaves!

NeaveFall2The weather has been beautiful — the weather has been rainy and cold.  Welcome to Spring in Wisconsin! On those days that are beautiful, have you been cleaning out your gardens, lawns, and under your trees?  All of those wonderfully dried leaves are just waiting to be turned into nutritious compost for your gardens. Compost provides the perfect amount of food for every plant — including essential nutrients not found in commercial fertilizers. Raking compost into your turf improves the structure of the soil under your lawn. If you think that plants need chemicals to survive, just look around you!  The woods, plains, and wildflowers sustain themselves without any man-made materials.

It all starts with shredding those leaves! Whole leaves take quite a while to break down on their own, and tend to mat together.  Whole leaves just sit there cold in compost piles.  Not only don’t they help — they can actually prevent the composting process.  Shred them up, though, and you create the perfect compost makings. Remember, though, that shredding decreases the volume by a factor of ten. In other words, 10 bags of whole leaves can be shredded down to the point where they can all fit in one bag.

imagesThere are a multitude of publications that help you with the dynamics of what to use for composting, how to compost, what to add, what not to add, etc.  You can use commercially manufactured compost bins, fenced-in piles, garbage cans studded with drainage holes, or simple black garbage bags — all of these solutions and more work to create quality compost as long as you’re using the right ingredients! My favorite book is Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost, which is written in plain English in a light and humorous style. There’s even a chapter on vermiculture (composting using worms). [Note: for more information on vermiculture, see our previous post here.] Another resource is a pamphlet produced by the UW-Extension Master Composter program, which can be downloaded and printed here.

Dark, nutrient-rich compost

Dark, nutrient-rich compost

Don’t be afraid to start composting — it’s easier than it looks and you can start small. You don’t have to make enough compost for all of your gardens — just set a goal to make enough for your container plants, or for one container! Your lawn and gardens will thank you for the nutrition, and you’ll save the money you would have spent on expensive fertilizers.

Earth Day 2015

Earth Day challenges us to consider various ways we might contribute mitigate our impact on the planet and its resources.

Each year, Wisconsin households still send 600 million pounds of “food waste” and compostable material to our landfills. Composting table scraps and yard waste can reduce the use of water and synthetic fertilizers. The microbial decomposition of biodegradable materials that have been piled, mixed and moistened will result in a humus-rich organic soil amendment containing nutrients that will foster plant growth. Compost moderates soil temperature, improves soil drainage, fertility, and structure, and can suppress weeds.

9bbce-compostrecipe

Compost bins are available for purchase for $45 at:

Outagamie County Recycling and Solid Waste Office
1419 Holland Road, Appleton

posted by Sue