Ultimate Composting: Our experience with “no-till” gardening

 

Our first attempt at a “no-till” approach to gardening in Virginia came when we arrived for a quick visit to Virginia to complete a purchase agreement on a house in June.  We purchased a sheet of plastic to cover a garden space currently in grass.  When we completed our move in mid-July, we began preparing raised beds to be ready for Fall planting.  Neighbors later told us that the former owners had spent considerable time getting the grass started during a dry period the previous year.  When we expanded the garden, we put down leaves to kill the grass.

At our current residence the grass in the backyard was in good shape.  I worked in a library giving me access to a steady supply of newspapers.  Two convenience stores and a college dining hall produced fifteen to thirty gallons of coffee grounds plus filters per week.  (Some of which was used on another garden.)  Wasteful city residents placed bags of compostables (grass clippings and leaves) at the curb for me to pick up.  (When looking for grass clippings, I watched for clover and dandelions–indicators of no weed spray.)

A fellow worker moved to a farm with a barn housing a quantity of old (5 years plus) hay.  He would drive my pickup with a rack home on Friday and return it Monday full of hay.  (Julia once said we had a yard full of hay and no cow.)  Five or six loads of broken bales of hay with the other organic matter gave us a good start on “ultimate composting”.

All of these ingredients permitted us to enrich the clay ridge we lived on.  The top soil that may have been there was probably gone before the slaves left the area.  Now there are five garden beds of sixty-six feet down to thirty feet of black soil on top of the clay.  The technique we used to improve the soil is similar to what has been called “lasagna” gardening.  The book with this title came out about time we were refining our practice of soil preparation and helped us to systematize our practice.  However, “stew” gardening seemed a better label.  My reasoning?  Mixing the materials as is done in a compost pile helps the microherd.  The microherd have little mouths/teeth and little feet.  Having both nitrogen and carbon mixed together as throughly as possible helps the microherd (bacteria, yeasts and allies) start converting the organic material into soil.  Below is a summary of the procedure which I have used with workshops on this procedure.  We used this procedure with several flower beds and to expand a food pantry garden.  The food pantry garden included patches of wiregrass which provided a constant battle during the 8-10 years of using that patch of ground.

 

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Ultimate Composting a.k.a. “lasagna”/stew gardening or  sheet composting

Why should I sheet compost?

* Enrich the soil in your garden by composting on site

* Superior to bin composting for improving soil

* Save money — purchase less topsoil, humus and peat

* Reduce tax-funded yard waste processing costs

* Protect water quality by increasing the efficiency of water and fertilizer use

What is compost?

* Dark crumbly material like top layer of soil in a forest

* Produced naturally by microbes and compost worms feeding on compost pile materials, including leaves and yard wastes from your own backyard

* A soil amendment that will improve clay or sandy soils

How does composting work?

* Composting is microbe and earthworm management

* ‘Feed’ for compost critters is material rich in carbon–fallen leaves, straw, even newspaper

* Microbes also need a source of nitrogen–green garden trimmings, manure, alfalfa, etc.

What do I need to begin?

* Manure fork or garden fork

* Newspapers soaked in water (if a new garden or if you have lots of weeds)

* Composting materials (dry leaves, garden waste, coffee grounds, peat, straw, hay, other materials)

* May need to add water

How do I begin?

Collect materials including carbon (leaves, wood chips) and nitrogen (grass, coffee grounds, manure)

  • Place 6 or more sheets of wet newspaper overlapped on sod. Cardboard can be used for fall application. (Cardboard is hard to get fully wet and to get to conform to shape of ground so that there are no spaces for weeds/grass to grow around/through.)

Spread up to 1 ft of leaves and grass clippings, shredded, packed down or up to four inches of green wood chips (in dry weather, water each layer.  2 bags leaves to 1 bag grass)

* Mix with nitrogen-rich material:

~1/2 ft or more green garden wastes); OR

~1-2 inches manure; OR

~A scattering of alfalfa meal (rabbit pellets); OR

~a few cups of organic N fertilizer (5-2-2)

[leaves alone will decompose eventually.  I am assuming you want faster breakdown]

* Add a sprinkling of finished/mature compost.

* Water to consistency of wet sponge

*Microbes get full diet quicker if you mix the different materials.

*Some recommend covering the area with porous material–burlap is best–until planting time.  (Google “Interbay” method.)

What stays out?

* Cat litter and dog droppings

* Sick plants

* Pesticide and herbicide treated plants

* Petroleum products

* coal ashes (wood ashes are good)

* Noxious weeds and weed seeds

* Oils, fats, large amounts of dairy products or meat

What about kitchen trimmings?

* Must be covered to avoid smell, insects and attracting animals.

*May introduce seeds—cover with leaves or hay to control sprouting seeds from trimmings

* Contribute valuable micronutrients to the pile

* Reduce organic wastes going to the landfill

* Add any amount on an on-going basis to composting material.

* Dig a hole or trench and put in scraps, cover with at 6″—8″ of leaves, hay, and grass, shredded paper

* Next visit, dig the hole in a different spot or cover with more dry material

 

When may I start planting?

*Best to start sheet composting in summer or fall for the next year.

*You may begin planting immediately–especially plants. Monitor plants to see that the mulch around them does not decompose and let them “high and dry”.

*You will need to put down mature compost or potting soil (soil pockets) to plant small seeds or plants.

For more detail:  https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-make-a-lasagna-garden-2539877

See the book Lasagna Gardening by Lanza (published by Rodale Press)

Also at gardenweb.com there is a lasagna gardening forum.

 

 

 

 

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