Adam’s tiller vs the microherd Or building soil God’s way

 

Soil building activists tend to be divided into two camps: some want to move stuff down and others want to build it up, although I suppose some of us have a dirty shoe in both garden beds. Here is how I explain to myself, and anyone who will listen, my approach.

Penn State helps promote an “Ag Progress Days” near Tyrone, Pa each August. One of the times (more than thirty years ago) I attended with Julia’s farmer father I went to a session on something new: no-till planting into a green manure crop. (Not sure what they called it.) The expert there stressed the importance of chemicalizing the green manure crop that was in place before proceeding with the planting. This was important to avoid depriving the new plants of nitrogen (and other nutrients) while the green manure crop was decaying/decomposing.

I wondered how that would work out in my more or less organic garden. I used a weed chopper and mower to cut down the rye I had planted. Then I spaded a shovel wide furrow into which I planted corn. Between the corn rows I dumped enough leaves to suppress any regrowth of the rye. As soon as the corn was six to eight inches, I pushed the leaves closer to the corn to suppress any weeds that might challenge the corn. I didn’t see any sign yellowing of leaves or stunting of stalks or any other signs of nutrient deficiency in the corn. The crop of sweet corn was normal. Didn’t plant a control plot since I was planting like I had in other years.

I had faith in the microherd (although I did learn that term until some years later). With the help of maintenance personnel of the local educational institution, I had been dumping a lot of partially shredded leaves on the garden for several years. I planted the rye because I thought the corn might need extra nitrogen! But with the leaves cover was heavy enough to keep the ground from freezing in the Michigan winters.  A healthy microherd had developed that was able to quickly go to work on the rye without taking nitrogen the corn might need. That’s my assumption. I do not have the biological knowledge to explain what has happened.

Tilling Adam’s way

What does this have to do with Adam’s tiller? My earlier thinking about the command to Adam to “till the soil” led to a vision. Due to my lusting after a mechanical device to ease my garden labors, I imagined a naked Adam violating virgin Eden with a mammoth, red TROYBUILT ROTOTILLER tearing that resistant sod into soft plantable soil. Rereading the Genesis passage reminded me that the couple had already been outside the garden at the time of the “till the soil” command. (Then was Adam’s possession of a tiller due to sin?) But, as explained to me recently, the word “till”, means, “care for”. When God is said to care for humans and this same word is used. (Off stage sounds of big red tiller fading.)

About this time in my life I was learning the Joy of Composting. Shifting compost was great exercise.   Bin composting was satisfying and somewhat useful. (See earlier blogs on “Composting and Grace” and “Three bags of leaves, two of grass”. I began to understand what I labeled “Ultimate Composting” (I was fascinated by all things Frisbee at the time) an imposing term for what others called “permanent mulch” or “lasagna gardening” or other terms. This is how I applied that understanding.

My current garden

Seventeen years ago we moved to a Shenandoah Valley ridge at 1300 feet with a southeastern orientation. Most topsoil had been liberated from the ridge before the slaves had been liberated from the area. The previous owner liked grass. We quickly smothered the grass with wet newspaper, leaves and some of the 15-30 gallons of coffee grounds per week I picked up from local convenience stores and a nearby college. A friend moved to a farm with an old barn with hay more than five years old. He would drive my pickup home and bring back a load of old hay. Julia said at one point that we had lots of hay in the back yard and only needed a cow.

We started spreading out these ingredients and had a good garden the second year. The third I began setting up raised beds with board sides. The steep hillside required some protection for the beds. Even with heavy mulch rain would shift everything down hill. Every year we have dumped leaves, some grass clippings (when we can find un sprayed yards) and coffee grounds on the beds in addition to much of the garden’s plant wastes. I am continually amazed at how much organic matter disappears into the beds. When you build up a microherd population, they work hard. The micro herd feeds the soil which the feeds the plants.

Building soil up

Finally we come to the wild claim that I know the way God does soil building.  This did not come by divine revelation.   I did not discovered on my own.   Many have contributed to what I have learned over the past thirty or more years of “organic” gardening. As a church-goer and follower of Jesus I cringe at all the things for which people claim God’s authority or attribute to God’s preferences. I do work at not demonizing those viewing soil building differently than I do. Double diggers puzzle me.  I remember creating straight lines of lovely black sod bottoms with the moldboard plow as a teenager less fondly now than I did when I mastered the skill.  My anxiety intensifies when I hear the sound of the ferocious mechanical devices churning through the soil cutting up the bodies and homes of the worms and the micro herd.

How has God been making new soil? In the prairies, grasses grow, die, decay and eventually become new soil. In the forest leaves fall, decay and become new soil. Trees die and turn to new soil. (Not sure what the natural rate of temperate zone soil development is.) God builds the soil up. Now, God is a bit slow. But, then, God has a lot more time to work. We don’t. That’s why we do in-the-garden composting, find combinations of ingredients to speed decomposition, do lasagna gardening or permanent mulching. Composting in bins permits faster building of new dirt to be added to a garden. Much of these “new” techniques imitate the “natural” process of soil building. (Machine aeration and mechanical turning of piles may represent a major extension of the natural processes.) Many of us see building the soil up and relying on worms and the microherd as man’s effort to imitate God’s way of building soil.

 

 

 

Two bags of leaves, one of grass

Learning about composting inputs

Can you imagine building a compost pile 8 feet high? That’s what I built my first compost pile. My memory might be a bit vague on that. The work was done more than forty years ago. Not too many years later I had a bit more space and my pile was only five feet by ten feet and not so high. I tried to shift these piles at least monthly between the southern Michigan spring thaw and the freeze in early December. Now, my pile may be turned only once a year. Along the line, I learned that I needed to balance “greens” (nitrogen) and “browns” (carbon). The input guide was two bags of leaves to one of grass.

Learning a bit

Now in my seventh decade and after two back surgeries I balance the compost inputs differently. First comes the collection area where we dump dry material until rain comes. Green material goes into the first bin. I no longer brag that I can compost anything and only collect chopped or small stuff. Friends bring me coffee grounds from the nearby convenience store or the dining hall of the local educational institution so that I have a strong nitrogen component. The first bin is usually full by the end of the summer. Then I find a younger person, often from a youth/student fundraiser, to shift to the second bin where I add slotted drainpipe to help the microorganism keep air-healthy and working. Progress from first bin to finished compost in the third bin may take more than a year.

Balancing compost inputs

Earlier the major input was my labor. Exercise was good. Now the major input is time. I increase the nitrogen input if possible to reduce the need for more time and shifting. I cover the second pile either to hold moisture and/or avoid leaching of nutrients. So, I have six or so inputs that I vary depending on the circumstances: carbon, nitrogen, water, air, labor, and time. Probably should add space. If I had plenty of space and an abundance of organic matter, I would start a pile and continue to add to the end of it. When the beginning of the pile was mature, I would start harvesting.

Composting inputs, Part 2

Composting at a Community Center

Working with the local community center with required a difference balance of inputs. Donations of vegetables and fruit were unpredictable. One might describe the quality of much of the fruit and vegetables at near the peak of ripeness when donated. The kitchen folk found using all these donations was a severe resource and time management challenge. The result was often a lot of spoiled fruit and vegetables. For a number of years a hog farmer had picked up kitchen trimmings. Unfortunately he was not as regular in picking up the trimmings as summer heat or freezing weather required. Our small garden needed compost. I had an idea that if horticultural therapy worked, then why not composting therapy. My motto was “If life brings you garbage, make compost.” (or, if you’ve made the mess, it still works). I had little success getting that message across, but we still made good compost.

Since we had an abundance of high nitrogen material, we needed to find sources of carbon. At first, the city allowed us to get partially shredded leaves at their collection site. Then they contracted with the landfill to use the leaves as cover for methane generating trash site. We started contacting tree-trimming firms and they provided us with wood chips to mix with the spoiled fruit and vegetables. A local butcher shop asked us to help remove some of the manure from their holding pens which turned out to be mostly sawdust. This additional source provided us with a good balance of carbon and nitrogen.

Workday procedure changes balance

Our community center hosts unemployed and homeless people and people doing community service instead of jail time. Tuesdays are workdays, so some labor was available for the composting project. There were five bins. 1. A materials collection bin (mostly carbon materials). 2. Collection bin (kitchen trimmings, plus bakery waste from a local business). Bins 3 and 4 were “cooking bins” with pipes added for air. Bin 4 was mostly finished compost from which compost was moved to the sifting machine.

A fifth pallet bin was used to store sifted compost under cover for sale. Using woodchips for carbon and bulking required extra labor, but two friends designed and crafted a rotating drum compost sifter to speed this process. A fuel tank from a Volvo truck, was cut open with a half-inch screen added inside,  Two windshield wiper motors turned the drum from Volvo trucks. A nearly exhausted Volvo truck battery drove the motors. Some of the compost was used on the garden. The drum rotated to sift out the wood chips and any stones and uncomposted clumps.  Sifting the compost made it more appealing for sale. Usually, several pickup loads, plus bags of compost were sold at the yearly plant sale.

The labor input was expected to be high here with each workday helping to shift and sift compost. That didn’t happen. So, to get air into the piles, we started adding pipes with holes in them and using a rod to poke holes in the pile (poking down from the top) when new pile first started to cool. Sometimes the piles sat for several weeks, other times, service groups would come in and the labor input would be high—higher perhaps than the process of composting would warrant. Infrequently we covered the piles to conserve water and sometimes to prevent leaching of nutrients during heavy rains.  On rare occasions we watered with city water while turning the piles.

Input summary

The inputs were the same in the different situations, the balance very different. The inputs were: 1. Carbon (browns–like leaves); 2. Greens (like—grass clippings); 3. Air (pipes, poking holes with rod); 4. Water; 5. Time; 6. Labor. (Of course, we didn’t have the mechanical power that is usually substituted for labor in larger operations.)

Why do I compost (in piles)? Why not do “ultimate composting”—composting in place—on the garden? I have been told there is scientific evidence for the superiority of this approach. Most of my home garden and the community center’s garden are generally covered with leaves or chips. When we lack these, we use unsifted compost. But, at the community center we wanted to have compost to sell. Sifted compost looks much better. Two additional reasons for bin composting: One, I like to have compost available to set plants in when I plant them, sifted compost to cover seed with and for making potting soil. Two, I like to make compost, to see the transformation of organic matter. See my earlier blog “Composting and the Grace of God”.

 

 

Basil bounty, plundered peperomia My plant rescue hobby

At the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale you can buy plants people donate.  Some plants come unlabeled or lose their labels.  Others are lack appeal (poorly presented, not healthy looking, etc.).  Plants that do not sell by Saturday afternoon are sent to Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg .  I have been offered peace lilies, wax plants (hoya), peperomia and others that are unlikely to sell at the store.  I get a lot of satisfaction in restoring these to health.

Last fall the peperomia (couldn’t tell what it was when I first saw it) had two leaves at the top of a 6″ stem.  There seemed to be life in the plant.  So, I cut off one stem just above what appeared to be a bud and put the the stem in water to root.  Soon I had plants that looked like the picture on the left.  When the stem sent out a new shoot, I cut off the other one and placed it in water also.  A month later the plant looked like the picture on the right.  I sent the picture to Garden Web where I found out that I had a peperomia.  The first plant has gone to Gift and Thrift for sale, the second from the rooted cuttings is still in my sun room.

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Basil bounty

The plant sale was over.  Upwards of 20 dozen 4″ pots of basil plants remained.  Since the Community Center did not want to care for them or have another sale, they chose the compost pile solution.  I determine to rescue as many as possible..  I took 3 or 4  flats and prepared them for the Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg where I volunteer.  When these were nearly gone, I went back to Our Community Center and they still had 3 or 4 more flats of basil plants.  I called Gift and Thrift and suggested they reduce the price.  Then I started cutting out all but one plant in each pot (there had been 5 or more) and fertilizing the plants.   When sales nearly stopped, I still had around 7 dozen plants.  So, I gave some to neighbors, then took some to church to give away. I heard a group was starting a community garden.  They accepted nearly 4 dozen pots.  Now, 6 weeks after the sale, I am down to 5 dozen pots of 6″ plants.  Of those,  21 will go to Patchwork (food) Pantry next Wednesday.  Then I will only have 42 plants left!

A bee in my bonnet

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Bee balm

The small plant in a big pot stumped me for the first year.  I set the pot in a sheltered place for the winter hoping it was frost hardy.  The second year in the pot it had one small bloom which I did not recognize.  Since it was growing well, I set it in the ground the next spring.  By mid-June I had the plant you see above and a friend helped me identify it as a new type of dwarf bee balm (Monarda).  A nice reward for patience (perhaps a balm for my impatience).

Peace with the cat

I am a peace advocate. and I like peace lilies.  When my last peace lily looked good, I reluctantly donated  it to the  Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale.  I was pleased it brought a good price.  The next year three single stem peace lilies came to  Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg from the sale.  I dumped out the three, preparing to create a new potting.  They had been potted in clay and none had good roots.  I set them in a 6′ pot.  After a period, two of them died.  So I repotted the remaining one in a smaller plant in a better potting soil (after checking the Internet).  After “sulking” for awhile on a shaded patio for the summer, it finally began growing.  Two years later it is a healthy looking plant and I expect a white spathe any time.  The plant would look better if our daughter’s cat had not nibbled on several leaves.  I have talked to several cat owners who have agreed that peace lilies may be especially tasty to cats.  Now to find a way to make peace between the plant and Feliz the cat!

 

 

Terminating mother

Having all the sweet potatoes slips I need signals the end of main planting season.  Now I must decide what to do with the “mother” that has produced all the sweet potato slips.

Sweet potatoes are not one of my favorite foods. I grow them because I have read that they are one of the most productive of nutrients per square foot.  Further, they are satisfying to grow:  seeing the rapid sprouting of new slips from the “mother”, watching the running of the vines and then lifting the orange or purple tubers in early October (we are in zone 6 at 1500 feet in western Virginia).  The June 10 late planting date approaches.  The tub of moss and vermiculite that I buried the tubers in proved a good incubator for all the new plants I need.   I have the two dozen or so plants potted for myself, plus more to sell at the local Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.

Sweet potato slips may be purchased at the local hardware store and some greenhouses or ordered from a number of sources.  Common varieties available are Beauregard, Centennial, Georgia Jet and Porto Rico.  The Sand Hill Preservation Center carries many more, listing white, purple, yellow, orange, short vine, long season and other types of  sweet potatoes.  I have been growing a split leaf variety of sweet grown and preserved for many years (she didn’t know how many) by Esther Shank, compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes.  I got the sweet potato slips from her when we worked together at the Gift & Thrift store.  To try to identify the Shank heirloom, I have worked through the Sand Hill online catalog and located six split leaf sweets of the right vine length, season length, and with orange skin and flesh.  I can say they are a tasty sweet potato that keeps well.  Not as large as Beauregard, perhaps, but sufficiently productive to keep us in sweet potatoes until May.

Ending the first planting season

Sprouts are still emerging from the sweet.  How do I give thanks for the mother tuber’s productivity of slips but by finishing the job and moving on to the potting?  I had buried the sweet in vermiculite and moss producing good “dirt roots”.  So why, one might ask, is potting necessary?  I have relatively limited space, so I have a form of double cropping.  .  As peas—planted in the middle of my four-foot wide beds—are declining, I push aside the mulch nearer the edges and set in the sweet potato plants.  Planting is usually two weeks later than if I had enough space to plant peas and sweet potatoes in separate beds.  So, the potted sweets have good roots when set in the ground and take off with little stress.  This year we were traveling until March 6, so did not get our peas in the ground early, so there is even more overlap.

Corn’s up, the snap peas are reaching the top of the fence, pole limas show the first signs of “running”, green beans look ready to send out blossoms, first tomatoes are swelling, peppers have blossoms and cabbages are big enough to cut.  It’s the lull before produce starts becoming the “burden” we love.  The heat this week will wilt the lettuce, send the arugula and mustard to flower and turn the spinach bitter.  We will still have Swiss chard, though, and maybe the “summer” lettuce can be shaded and watered enough to show its superiority to store-bought.

This year I don’t have someone else to give the mother to.  Why do I find difficult slicing   the “Original Sweet Potato” in pieces?  Partly because there are still a number of new sprouts showing on the tuber.  Terminating the mother, even more than giving her away, sets the end to the main planting season.  Then, too, I enjoy the starting of plants and of the garden, more than the maintaining.  This “pioneering” inclination of mine is an annoyance to my gardening partner.  She would like to see me equally engaged in the watering, weeding and harvesting aspects of gardening.

Giving thanks to God for the soil, the rain and strength to plant.  Looking forward (with a non-ground hog summer) to a bountiful sweet potato harvest.

Composting and Grace

Thinking about the Way of God

Weather and schedule permitting, I begin my monthly composting cycle by picking up five to ten bags of grass clippings or leaves along the street near my home. I spread these yard wastes in thin layers in the collection area near my compost bin. Nearby I store the coffee grounds I have collected at a local convenience stores and shredded paper from work. Soon I have enough materials to fill my one-pallet by two-pallet bin.

From my collection area, I estimate that I am mixing two parts of carbon or brown matter to one part of green or nitrogen. When I do not have enough leaves (browns) to mix with the yard or kitchen trimmings(greens), I use shredded office paper. For greens I usually have some household wastes (vegetable only) and in the summer, garden trimmings to add to the grass clippings. In the winter, I add coffee grounds (brown-colored, but a green with as much nitrogen as manure which the local convenience store furnishes at the rate of five gallons a day. Then comes a sprinkling of mature compost from the previous batch that was too coarse to go through my 1/2” screen. This compost inoculates the new material with the microorganisms that will speed decomposition. To moisten the materials, I sprinkle the pile with water from my rain barrels. I continue to add more grass and other wastes, then water the mix until the pile is three to four feet high.

During the next weeks the temperature nears 140°. I take a half inch, six foot-long rod and poke holes in the pile from top to bottom to provide oxygen. If I have not lined the bin with plastic, I occasionally water the pile to help maintain a moist environment which the micro-organisms need to break down the vegetable matter. I scrounge agricultural plastic from farmer friends to loosely cover the pile, keeping it moist in the summer and warmer in the winter.

If I see that the composting has not reached the outer layer, I fork the material from one bin to another, being careful to move the outer matter to the inside of the new pile. Dry matter gets watered as I mix it. This mixing provides an additional benefit of an hour or so of vigorous exercise and time to think.

As I lean on my fork I imagine that my composting mirrors the grace of God working in our lives. My compost pile contains other peoples’ garbage: Leaves and grass clippings. I have added the zuchini that stayed in the refrigerator too long, cabbage that the worms wasted, corn stalks from which we have harvested yellow, juicy ears, tomatoes that I neglected to harvest promptly. God takes the remains of one growth cycle, the scraps, the worn out parts, and the prunings of excess growth and mixes them together. He takes the garbage that life dumps on us and adds the air and moisture needed to activate the change. The material that God changes provides benefits for the next stage of growth. Maybe God, the composter, models for us a way of dealing with life. If you make garbage of your life, God will help you make compost or If life brings you garbage, make compost.

Children understand this concept when I have talked to their classes. Tough second and third grade boys enjoy taking deep whiffs of the old kitchen wastes in the bucket I set in the dark next to one of compost. They enjoyed the feel of the compost and some offered to run their hands through the garbage as well. I told them: Sometimes you make a mess of a project at home, an assignment at school or a friendship. Sometimes the garbage is dumped on you, sometimes you make it yourself. God can help you change this garbage into something like compost; something to help you grow when the next opportunity comes along.

“Bioremediation” is s variation of the composting process. Contaminated soil is mixed with wood chips and poultry litter and allowed to heat to above one-hundred and forty degrees. After several months of cooling, the contaminants have disappeared. As a pacifist it seems ironic to me that this process was developed on a military base for soil contaminated by aviation fuel.

Forking the compost from one bin to the other has given me time to think about these things—time also for the change in the compost. After a several months the damp, brown compost now shows little evidence of the original ingredients. As I throw the compost against the half-inch hardware-cloth screen most of the material falls into my wheelbarrow below.

The results of my stress-reducing exercise, the blessing for my rescue of valuable organic matter from the local incinerator, and the boon for my plants, flows dark brown and sweet-smelling through the sifter. From smelly green grass clippings, brown leaves, banana peels and coffee grounds-with time and effort—came the miracle of mature compost.   This compost will enrich the soil promoting a new period of growth. The transformation convinces me that anyone who holds mature compost in their hands has a better “feel” for God’s grace.

If life brings you garbage, make compost.

If you have garbaged up your life, make compost.