HOME PAGE     SovereigntyLibrary    Go To Chapter Five

Organic Gardener's

by Steve Solomon


All About Materials

    In most parts of the country, enoughorganic materials accumulate around an average home and yard to make all the composta backyard garden needs. You probably have weeds, leaves, perhaps your own humanhair (my wife is the family barber), dust from the vacuum cleaner, kitchen garbageand grass clippings. But, there may not be enough to simultaneously build the lushestlawn, the healthiest ornamentals and grow the vegetables. If you want to makemore compost than your own land allows, it is not difficult to find very large quantitiesof organic materials that are free or cost very little.

    The most obvious material to bringin for composting is animal manure. Chicken and egg raisers and boarding stablesoften give manure away or sell it for a nominal fee. For a few dollars most smallscale animal growers will cheerfully use their scoop loader to fill your pickup trucktill the springs sag.

    As useful as animal manure can be ina compost pile, there are other types of low C/N materials too. Enormous quantitiesof loose alfalfa accumulate around hay bale stacks at feed and grain stores. To theproprietor this dusty chaff is a nuisance gladly given to anyone that will neatlysweep it up and truck it away. To the home gardener, alfalfa in any form is richas gold.

    Some years, rainy Oregon weather isstill unsettled at haying season and farmers are stuck with spoiled hay. I'm surethis happens most places that grass hay is grown on natural rainfall. Though a shrewdfarmer may try to sell moldy hay at a steep discount by representing it to stillhave feed value, actually these ruined bales must be removed from a field beforethey interfere with working the land. A hard bargainer can often get spoiled hayin exchange for hauling the wet bales out of the field

    There's one local farmer near me whoseentire family tree holds a well-deserved reputation for hard, self-interested dealing.One particularly wet, cool unsettled haying season, after starting the spoiled-haydicker at 90 cents per bale asked--nothing offered but hauling the soggy bales outof the field my offer--I finally agreed to take away about twenty tons at ten centsper bale. This small sum allowed the greedy b-----to feel he had gotten the betterof me. He needed that feeling far more than I needed to win the argument or to keepthe few dollars Besides, the workings of self-applied justice that some religiousphilosophers call karma show that over the long haul the worst thing one person cando to another is to allow the other to get away with an evil act.

    Any dedicated composter can make contactsyielding cheap or free organic materials by the ton. Orchards may have badly bruisedor rotting fruit. Small cider mills, wineries, or a local juice bar restaurant maybe glad to get rid of pomace. Carpentry shops have sawdust. Coffee roasters havedust and chaff. The microbrewery is becoming very popular these days; mall-scalelocal brewers and distillers may have spent hops and mash. Spoiled product or chaffmay be available from cereal mills.

    City governments often will deliverautumn leaves by the ton and will give away or sell the output of their own municipalcomposting operations. Supermarkets, produce wholesalers, and restaurants may bewilling to give away boxes of trimmings and spoiled food. Barbers and poodle groomersthrow away hair.

    Seafood processors will sell truckloadsof fresh crab, fish and shrimp waste for a small fee. Of course, this material becomesevil-smelling in very short order but might be relatively inoffensive if a personhad a lot of spoiled hay or sawdust waiting to mix into it. Market gardeners nearthe Oregon coast sheet-compost crab waste, tilling it into the soil before it getstoo "high." Other parts of the country might supply citrus wastes, sugarcane bagasse, rice hulls, etc.

About Common Materials

    Alfalfa is a protein-rich perenniallegume mainly grown as animal feed. On favorable soil it develops a deep root system,sometimes exceeding ten feet. Alfalfa draws heavily on subsoil minerals so it willbe as rich or poor in nutrients as the subsoil it grew in. Its average C/N is around12:1 making alfalfa useful to compensate for larger quantities of less potent material.Sacked alfalfa meal or pellets are usually less expensive (and being "stemmy,"have a slightly higher C/N) than leafy, best-quality baled alfalfa hay. Rain-spoiledbales of alfalfa hay are worthless as animal feed but far from valueless to the composter.

    Pelletized rabbit feed is largely alfalfafortified with grain. Naturally, rabbit manure has a C/N very similar to alfalfaand is nutrient rich, especially if some provision is made to absorb the urine.

    Apple pomace is wet and compact.If not well mixed with stiff, absorbent material, large clumps of this or other fruitwastes can become airless regions of anaerobic decomposition. Having a high watercontent can be looked upon as an advantage. Dry hay and sawdust can be hard to moistenthoroughly; these hydrate rapidly when mixed with fruit pulp. Fermenting fruit pulpattracts yellow jackets so it is sensible to incorporate it quickly into a pile andcover well with vegetation or soil.

    The watery pulp of fruits is not particularlyrich in nutrients but apple, grape, and pear pulps are generously endowed with soft,decomposable seeds. Most seeds contain large quantities of phosphorus, nitrogen,and other plant nutrients. It is generally true that plants locate much of theirentire yearly nutrient assimilation into their seeds to provide the next generationwith the best possible start. Animals fed on seeds (such as chickens) produce therichest manures.

    Older books about composting warn aboutmetallic pesticide residues adhering to fruit skins. However, it has been nearlyhalf a century since arsenic and lead arsenate were used as pesticides and mercuryis no longer used in fungicides.

    Bagasse is the voluminous wasteproduct from extracting cane sugar. Its C/N is extremely high, similar to wheat strawor sawdust, and it contains very little in the way of plant nutrients. However, itscoarse, strong, fibrous structure helps build lightness into a pile and improve airflow. Most sugar mills burn bagasse as their heat source to evaporate water out ofthe sugary juice squeezed from the canes. At one time there was far more bagasseproduced than the mills needed to burn and bagasse often became an environmentalpollutant. Then, bagasse was available for nothing or next to nothing. These days,larger, modern mills generate electricity with bagasse and sell their surplus tothe local power grid. Bagasse is also used to make construction fiberboard for subwalland insulation.

    Banana skins and stalks aresoft and lack strong fiber. They are moderately rich in phosphorus, potassium, andnitrogen. Consequently they rot quickly. Like other kitchen garbage, banana wasteshould be put into the core of a compost pile to avoid attracting and breeding flies.See also: Garbage.

    Basic slag is an industrialwaste from smelting iron. Ore is refined by heating it with limestone and dolomite.The impurities combine with calcium and magnesium, rise to the surface of the moltenmetal, and are skimmed off. Basic slag contains quite a bit of calcium plus a varietyof useful plant nutrients not usually found in limestone. Its exact composition variesgreatly depending on the type of ore used.

    Slag is pulverized and sold in sacksas a substitute for agricultural lime. The intense biological activity of a compostpile releases more of slag's other mineral content and converts its nutrients toorganic substances that become rapidly available once the compost is incorporatedinto soil. Other forms of powdered mineralized rock can be similarly added to a compostpile to accelerate nutrient release.

    Rodale Press, publisher of OrganicGardening magazine is located in Pennsylvania where steel mills abound. Havingmore experience with slag, Rodale advises the user to be alert to the fact that somecontain little in the way of useful nutrients and/or may contain excessive amountsof sulfur. Large quantities of sulfur can acidify soil. Read the analysis on thelabel. Agriculturally useful slag has an average composition of 40 percent calciumand 5 percent magnesium. It must also be very finely ground to be effective. Seealso: Lime and Rock dust.

    Beet wastes, like bagasse, area residue of extracting sugar. They have commercial value as livestock feed and aresold as dry pulp in feed stores located near regions where sugar beets are grown.Their C/N is in the vicinity of 20:1 and they may contain high levels of potassium,reaching as much as 4 percent.

    Brewery wastes. Both spent hops(dried flowers and leaves) and malt (sprouted barley and often other grains) arepotent nutrient sources with low C/N ratios. Spent malt is especially potent becausebrewers extract all the starches and convert them to sugar, but consider the proteinsas waste because proteins in the brew make it cloudy and opaque. Hops may be easierto get. Malt has uses as animal feed and may be contracted for by some local feedlotor farmer. These materials will be wet, heavy and frutily odoriferous (though notunpleasantly so) and you will want to incorporate them into your compost pile immediately.

    Buckwheat hulls. Buckwheat isa grain grown in the northeastern United States and Canada. Adapted to poor, droughtysoils, the crop is often grown as a green manure. The seeds are enclosed in a thin-walled,brown to black fibrous hulls that are removed at a groat mill. Buckwheat hulls arelight, springy, and airy. They'll help fluff up a compost heap. Buckwheat hulls arepopular as a mulch because they adsorb moisture easily, look attractive, and stayin place. Their C/N is high. Oat and rice hulls are similar products.

    Canola meal. See: Cottonseedmeal.

    Castor pomace is pulp left aftercastor oil has been squeezed from castor bean seeds. Like other oil seed residuesit is very high in nitrogen, rich in other plant nutrients, particularly phosphorus,Castor pomace may be available in the deep South; it makes a fine substitute foranimal manure.

    Citrus wastes may be availableto gardeners living near industrial processors of orange, lemon, and grapefruit.In those regions, dried citrus pulp may also be available in feed stores. Dried orangeskins contain about 3 percent phosphorus and 27 percent potassium. Lemons are a littlehigher in phosphorus but lower in potassium. Fruit culls would have a similar nutrientratio on a dry weight basis, but they are largely water. Large quantities of cullscould be useful to hydrate stubbornly dry materials like straw or sawdust.

    Like other byproducts of industrialfarming, citrus wastes may contain significant amounts of pesticide residues. Thecomposting process will break down and eliminate most toxic organic residues, especiallyif the pile gets really hot through and through. (See also: Leaves) The effectof such high levels of potassium on the nutritional qualities of my food would alsoconcern me if the compost I was making from these wastes were used for vegetablegardening.

    Coffee grounds are nutrient-richlike other seed meals. Even after brewing they can contain up to 2 percent nitrogen,about 1/2 percent phosphorus and varying amounts of potassium usually well below1 percent. Its C/N runs around 12:1. Coffee roasters and packers need to disposeof coffee chaff, similar in nutrient value to used grounds and may occasionally havea load of overly roasted beans.

    Coffee grounds seem the earthworm'sfood of choice. In worm bins, used grounds are more vigorously devoured than anyother substance. If slight odor is a consideration, especially if doing in-the-homevermicomposting, coffee grounds should be incorporated promptly into a pile to avoidthe souring that results from vinegar-producing bacteria. Fermenting grounds mayalso attract harmless fruit flies. Paper filters used to make drip coffee may beput into the heap or worm box where they contribute to the bedding. See also: Paper.

    Corncobs are no longer availableas an agricultural waste product because modern harvesting equipment shreds themand spits the residue right back into the field. However, home gardeners who fancysweet corn may produce large quantities of cobs. Whole cobs will aerate compost heapsbut are slow to decompose. If you want your pile ready within one year, it is betterto dry and then grind the cobs before composting them.

    Cottonseed meal is one of thiscountry's major oil seed residues. The seed is ginned out of the cotton fiber, ground,and then its oil content is chemically extracted. The residue, sometimes called oilcake or seed cake, is very high in protein and rich in NPK. Its C/N runs around 5:1,making it an excellent way to balance a compost pile containing a lot of carboniferousmaterials.

    Most cottonseed meal is used as animalfeed, especially for beef and dairy cattle. Purchased in garden stores in small containersit is very expensive; bought by the 50- to 80-pound sack from feed stores or farmcoops, cottonseed meal and other oil seed meals are quite inexpensive. Though pricesof these types of commodities vary from year to year, oil cakes of all kinds usuallycost between $200 to $400 per ton and only slightly higher purchased sacked in less-than-tonlots.

    The price of any seed meal is stronglyinfluenced by freight costs. Cottonseed meal is cheapest in the south and the southwestwhere cotton is widely grown. Soybean meal may be more available and priced betterin the midwest. Canadian gardeners are discovering canola meal, a byproduct fromproducing canola (or rapeseed) oil. When I took a sabbatical in Fiji, I advised localgardeners to use coconut meal, an inexpensive "waste" from extracting coconutoil. And I would not be at all surprised to discover gardeners in South Dakota usingsunflower meal. Sesame seed, safflower seed, peanut and oil-seed corn meals may alsobe available in certain localities.

    Seed meals make an ideal starting pointfor compounding complete organic fertilizer mixes. The average NPK analysis of mostseed meals is around 6-4-2. Considered as a fertilizer, oil cakes are somewhat lackingin phosphorus and sometimes in trace minerals. By supplementing them with materialslike bone meal, phosphate rock, kelp meal, sometimes potassium-rich rock dusts andlime or gypsum, a single, wide-spectrum slow-release trace-mineral-rich organic fertilizersource can be blended at home having an analysis of about 5-5-5. Cottonseed mealis particularly excellent for this purpose because it is a dry, flowing, odorlessmaterial that stores well. I suspect that cottonseed meal from the southwest maybe better endowed with trace minerals than that from leached-out southeastern soilsor soy meal from depleted midwestern farms. See the last section of Chapter Eight.

    Some organic certification bureaucraciesfoolishly prohibit or discourage the use of cottonseed meal as a fertilizer. Therationale behind this rigid self-righteousness is that cotton, being a nonfood crop,is sprayed with heavy applications of pesticides and/or herbicides that are so hazardousthat they not permitted on food crops. These chemicals are usually dissolved in anemulsified oil-based carrier and the cotton plant naturally concentrates pesticideresidues and breakdown products into the oily seed.

    I believe that this concern is accurateas far as pesticide residues being translocated into the seed. However, the chemicalprocess used to extract cottonseed oil is very efficient The ground seeds are mixedwith a volatile solvent similar to ether and heated under pressure in giant retorts.I reason that when the solvent is squeezed from the seed, it takes with it all notonly the oil, but, I believe, virtually all of the pesticide residues. Besides, anyremaining organic toxins will be further destroyed by the biological activity ofthe soil and especially by the intense heat of a compost pile.

    What I personally worry aboutis cottonseed oil. I avoid prepared salad dressings that may contain cottonseed oil,as well as many types of corn and potato chips, tinned oysters, and other preparedfood products. I also suggest that you peek into the back of your favorite Orientaland fast food restaurants and see if there aren't stacks of ten gallon cottonseedoil cans waiting to fill the deep-fat fryer. I fear this sort of meal as dangerousto my health. If you still fear that cottonseed meal is also a dangerous productthen you certainly won't want to be eating feedlot beef or drinking milk or usingother dairy products from cattle fed on cottonseed meal.

    Blood meal runs 10-12 percentnitrogen and contains significant amounts of phosphorus. It is the only organic fertilizerthat is naturally water soluble. Blood meal, like other slaughterhouse wastes, maybe too expensive for use as a compost activator.

    Sprinkled atop soil as a side-dressing,dried blood usually provokes a powerful and immediate growth response. Blood mealis so potent that it is capable of burning plants; when applied you must avoid gettingit on leaves or stems. Although principally a source of nitrogen, I reason that thereare other nutritional substances like growth hormones or complex organic "phytamins"in blood meal. British glasshouse lettuce growers widely agree that lettuce sidedressedwith blood meal about three weeks before harvest has a better "finish,"a much longer shelf-life, and a reduced tendency to "brown butt" comparedto lettuce similarly fertilized with urea or chemical nitrate sources.

    Feathers are the birds' equivalentof hair on animals and have similar properties. See Hair

    Fish and shellfish waste. Theseproteinaceous, high-nitrogen and trace-mineral-rich materials are readily availableat little or no cost in pickup load lots from canneries and sea food processors.However, in compost piles, large quantities of these materials readily putrefy, makethe pile go anaerobic, emit horrid odors, and worse, attract vermin and flies. Toavoid these problems, fresh seafood wastes must be immediately mixed with large quantitiesof dry, high C/N material. There probably are only a few homestead composters ableto utilize a ton or two of wet fish waste at one time.

    Oregonians pride themselves for beingtolerant, slow-to-take-offense neighbors. Along the Oregon coast, small-scale marketgardeners will thinly spread shrimp or crab waste atop a field and promptly tillit in. Once incorporated in the soil, the odor rapidly dissipates. In less than oneweek.

    Fish meal is a much better alternativefor use around the home. Of course, you have to have no concern for cost and haveyour mind fixed only on using the finest possible materials to produce the nutritionallyfinest food when electing to substitute fish meal for animal manures or oil cakes.Fish meal is much more potent than cottonseed meal. Its typical nutrient analysisruns 9-6-4. However, figured per pound of nutrients they contain, seed meals area much less expensive way to buy NPK. Fish meal is also mildly odoriferous. The smellis nothing like wet seafood waste, but it can attract cats, dogs, and vermin.

    What may make fish meal worth the troubleand expense is that sea water is the ultimate depository of all water-soluble nutrientsthat were once in the soil. Animals and plants living in the sea enjoy complete,balanced nutrition. Weston Price's classic book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,attributes nearly perfect health to humans who made seafoods a significant portionof their diets. Back in the 1930s--before processed foods were universally availablein the most remote locations-people living on isolated sea coasts tended to livelong, have magnificent health, and perfect teeth. See also: Kelp meal.

    Garbage. Most forms of kitchenwaste make excellent compost. But Americans foolishly send megatons of kitchen garbageto landfills or overburden sewage treatment plants by grinding garbage in a disposal.The average C/N of garbage is rather low so its presence in a compost heap facilitatesthe decomposition of less potent materials. Kitchen garbage can also be recycledin other ways such as vermicomposting (worm boxes) and burying it in the garden intrenches or post holes. These alternative composting methods will be discussed insome detail later.

    Putting food scraps and wastes downa disposal is obviously the least troublesome and apparently the most "sanitary"method, passing the problem on to others. Handled with a little forethought, compostinghome food waste will not breed flies or make the kitchen untidy or ill smelling.The most important single step in keeping the kitchen clean and free of odor is toput wastes in a small plastic bucket or other container of one to two gallons insize, and empty it every few days. Periodically adding a thin layer of sawdust orpeat moss supposedly helps to prevent smells. In our kitchen, we've found that coveringthe compost bucket is no alternative to emptying it. When incorporating kitchen wastesinto a compost pile, spread them thinly and cover with an inch or two of leaves,dry grass, or hay to adsorb wetness and prevent access by flies. It may be advisableto use a vermin-tight composting bin.

    Granite dust. See Rock dust.

    Grape wastes. See Apple pomace.

    Grass clippings. Along withkitchen garbage, grass clippings are the compostable material most available to theaverage homeowner. Even if you (wisely) don't compost all of your clippings (seesidebar), your foolish neighbors may bag theirs up for you to take away. If you mulchwith grass clippings, make sure the neighbors aren't using "weed and feed"type fertilizers, or the clippings may cause the plants that are mulched to die.Traces of the those types of broadleaf herbicides allowed in "weed and feed"fertilizers, are thoroughly decomposed in the composting process.

    It is not necessary to return everybit of organic matter to maintain a healthy lawn. Perhaps one-third to one-half theannual biomass production may be taken away and used for composting without seriouslydepleting the lawn's vigor--especially if one application of a quality fertilizeris given to the lawn each year. Probably the best time of year to remove clippingsis during the spring while the grass is growing most rapidly. Once a clover/grassmix is established it is less necessary to use nitrogen fertilizers. In fact, highlevels of soil nitrates reduces the clover's ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen.However, additions of other mineral nutrients like phosphorus, potassium, and especiallycalcium may still be necessary.

    Lawn health is similar to garden health. Both depend on the presence of large enough quantities of organic material in the soil. This organic matter holds a massive reserve of nutrition built up over the years by the growing plants themselves. When, for reasons of momentary aesthetics, we bag up and remove clippings from our lawn, we prevent the grass from recycling its own fertility.

    It was once mistakenly believed that unraked lawn clippings built up on the ground as unrotted thatch, promoting harmful insects and diseases. This is a half-truth. Lawns repeatedly fertilized with sulfur-based chemical fertilizers, especially ammonium sulfate and superphosphate, become so acid and thus so hostile to bacterial decomposition and soil animals that a thatch of unrotted clippings and dead sod can build up and thus promote disease and insect problems.

    However, lawns given lime or gypsum to supply calcium that is so vital to the healthy growth of clover, and seed meals and/or dressings of finely decomposed compost or manure become naturally healthy. Clippings falling on such a lawn rot rapidly because of the high level of microorganisms in the soil, and disappear in days. Dwarf white clover can produce all the nitrate nitrogen that grasses need to stay green and grow lustily. Once this state of health is developed, broadleaf weeds have a hard time competing with the lusty grass/clover sod and gradually disappear. Fertilizing will rarely be necessary again if little biomass is removed.

    Homeowners who demand the spiffy appearance of a raked lawn but still want a healthy lawn have several options. They may compost their grass clippings and then return the compost to the lawn. They may use a side-discharge mower and cut two days in succession. The first cut will leave rows of clippings to dry on the lawn; the second cut will disintegrate those clippings and pretty much make them disappear. Finally, there are "mulching" mowers with blades that chop green grass clippings into tiny pieces and drops them below the mower where they are unnoticeable.

    Grass clippings, especially springgrass, are very high in nitrogen, similar to the best horse or cow manure. Anyonewho has piled up fresh grass clippings has noticed how rapidly they heat up, howquickly the pile turns into a slimy, airless, foul-smelling anaerobic mess, and howmuch ammonia may be given off. Green grass should be thoroughly dispersed into apile, with plenty of dry material. Reserve bags of leaves from the fall or have abale of straw handy to mix in if needed. Clippings allowed to sun dry for a few daysbefore raking or bagging behave much better in the compost heap.

    Greensand. See Rock dust.

    Hair contains ten timesthe nitrogen of most manures. It resists absorbing moisture and readily compresses,mats, and sheds water, so hair needs to be mixed with other wetter materials. IfI had easy access to a barber shop, beauty salon, or poodle grooming business, I'ddefinitely use hair in my compost. Feathers, feather meal and feather dust (a bird'sequivalent to hair) have similar qualities.

    Hay. In temperate climates,pasture grasses go through an annual cycle that greatly changes their nutrient content.Lawn grasses are not very different. The first cuttings of spring grass are potentsources of nitrogen, high in protein and other vital mineral nutrients. In fact,spring grass may be as good an animal feed as alfalfa or other legume hay. Youngryegrass, for example, may exceed two percent nitrogen-equaling about 13 percentprotein. That's why cattle and horses on fresh spring grass frisk around and whyJune butter is so dark yellow, vitamin-rich and good-flavored.

    In late spring, grasses begin to formseed and their chemical composition changes. With the emergence of the seed stalk,nitrogen content drops markedly and the leaves become more fibrous, ligninous, andconsequently, more reluctant to decompose. At pollination ryegrass has dropped toabout l percent nitrogen and by the time mature seed has developed, to about 0.75percent.

    These realities have profound implicationsfor hay-making, for using grasses as green manures, and for evaluating the C/N ofhay you may be planning to use in a compost heap. In earlier times, making grasshay that would be nutritious enough to maintain the health of cattle required cuttingthe grass before, or just at, the first appearance of seed stalks. Not only did earlyharvesting greatly reduce the bulk yield, it usually meant that without concern forcost or hours of labor the grass had to be painstakingly dried at a time of yearwhen there were more frequent rains and lower temperatures. In nineteenth-centuryEngland, drying grass was draped by hand over low hurdles, dotting each pasture withhundreds of small racks that shed water like thatched roofs and allowed air flowfrom below. It is obvious to me where the sport of running hurdles came from; I envisionenergetic young countryfolk, pepped up on that rich spring milk and the first gardengreens of the year, exuberantly racing each other across the just-mowed fields duringhaying season.

    In more recent years, fresh wet springgrass was packed green into pits and made into silage where a controlled anaerobicfermentation retained its nutritional content much like sauerkraut keeps cabbage.Silage makes drying unnecessary. These days, farm labor is expensive and tractorsare relatively inexpensive. It seems that grass hay must be cut later when the weatheris more stable, economically dried on the ground, prevented from molding by frequentraking, and then baled mechanically.

    In regions enjoying relatively rainlesssprings or where agriculture depends on irrigation, this system may result in qualityhay. But most modern farmers must supplement the low-quality hay with oil cakes orother concentrates. Where I live, springs are cool and damp and the weather may notstabilize until mid-June. By this date grass seed is already formed and beginningto dry down. This means our local grass hay is very low in protein, has a high C/N,and is very woody--little better than wheat straw. Pity the poor horses and cattlethat must try to extract enough nutrition from this stuff.

    Western Oregon weather conditions alsomean that farmers often end up with rain-spoiled hay they are happy to sell cheaply.Many years I've made huge compost piles largely from this kind of hay. One seriousliability from cutting grass hay late is that it will contain viable seeds. If thecomposting process does not thoroughly heat all of these seeds, the compost willsprout grass all over the garden. One last difficulty with poor quality grass hay:the tough, woody stems are reluctant to absorb moisture.

    The best way to simultaneously overcomeall of these liabilities is first to permit the bales to thoroughly spoil and becomemoldy through and through before composting them. When I have a ton or two of spoiledhay bales around, I spread them out on the ground in a single layer and leave themin the rain for an entire winter. Doing this sprouts most of the grass seed withinthe bales, thoroughly moistens the hay, and initiates decomposition. Next summerI pick up this material, remove the baling twine, and mix it into compost piles withplenty of more nitrogenous stuff.

    One last word about grass and how itworks when green manuring. If a thick stand of grasses is tilled in during springbefore seed formation begins, its high nitrogen content encourages rapid decomposition.Material containing 2 percent nitrogen and lacking a lot of tough fiber can be totallyrotted and out of the way in two weeks, leaving the soil ready to plant. This variationon green manuring works like a charm.

    However, if unsettled weather conditionsprevent tillage until seed formation has begun, the grasses will contain much lessnitrogen and will have developed a higher content of resistant lignins. If the soildoes not become dry and large reserves of nitrogen are already waiting in the soilto balance the high C/N of mature grass, it may take only a month to decompose Butthere will be so much decomposition going on for the first few weeks that even seedgermination is inhibited. Having to wait an unexpected month or six weeks after wetweather prevented forming an early seed bed may delay sowing for so long that theseason is missed for the entire year. Obstacles like this must be kept in mind whenconsidering using green manuring as a soil-building technique. Cutting the grassclose to the soil line and composting the vegetation off the field eliminates thisproblem.

    Hoof and horn meal. Did youknow that animals construct their hooves and horns from compressed hair? The mealis similar in nutrient composition to blood meal, leather dust, feather meal, ormeat meal (tankage). It is a powerful source of nitrogen with significant amountsof phosphorus. Like other slaughterhouse byproducts its high cost may make it impracticalto use to adjust the C/N of compost piles. Seed meals or chicken manure (chickensare mainly fed seeds) have somewhat lower nitrogen contents than animal byproductsbut their price per pound of actual nutrition is more reasonable. If hoof and hornmeal is not dispersed through a pile it may draw flies and putrefy. I would preferto use expensive slaughterhouse concentrates to blend into organic fertilizer mixes.

    Juicer pulp: See Apple pomace.

    Kelp meals from several countriesare available in feed and grain stores and better garden centers, usually in 25 kg(55-pound) sacks ranging in cost from $20 to $50. Considering this spendy price,I consider using kelp meal more justifiable in complete organic fertilizer mixesas a source of trace minerals than as a composting supplement.

    There is a great deal of garden loreabout kelp meal's growth-stimulating and stress-fortifying properties. Some garden-storebrands tout these qualities and charge a very high price. The best prices are foundat feed dealers where kelp meal is considered a bulk commodity useful as an animalfood supplement.

    I've purchased kelp meal from Norway,Korea, and Canada. There are probably other types from other places. I don't thinkthere is a significant difference in the mineral content of one source compared toanother. I do not deny that there may be differences in how well the packers processingmethod preserved kelp's multitude of beneficial complex organic chemicals that improvethe growth and overall health of plants by functioning as growth stimulants, phytamins,and who knows what else.

    Still, I prefer to buy by price, notby mystique, because, after gardening for over twenty years, garden writing for fifteenand being in the mail order garden seed business for seven I have been on the receivingend of countless amazing claims by touters of agricultural snake oils; after testingout dozens of such concoctions I tend to disbelieve mystic contentions of uniquesuperiority. See also: Seaweed.

    Leather dust is a waste productof tanneries, similar to hoof and horn meal or tankage. It may or may not be contaminatedwith high levels of chromium, a substance used to tan suede. If only vegetable-tannedleather is produced at the tannery in question, leather dust should be a fine soilamendment. Some organic certification bureaucrats prohibit its use, perhaps rightlyso in this case.

    Leaves. Soil nutrients are dissolvedby rain and leached from surface layers, transported to the subsoil, thence the groundwater, and ultimately into the salty sea. Trees have deep root systems, reachingfar into the subsoil to bring plant nutrients back up, making them nature's nutrientrecycler. Because they greatly increase soil fertility, J. Russell Smith called trees"great engines of production." Anyone who has not read his visionary book,Tree Crops, should. Though written in 1929, this classic book is currentlyin print.

    Once each year, leaves are availablein large quantity, but aren't the easiest material to compost. Rich in minerals butlow in nitrogen, they are generally slow to decompose and tend to pack into an airlessmass. However, if mixed with manure or other high-nitrogen amendment and enough firmmaterial to prevent compaction, leaves rot as well as any other substance. Runningdry leaves through a shredder or grinding them with a lawnmower greatly acceleratestheir decomposition. Of all the materials I've ever put through a garden grinder,dry leaves are the easiest and run the fastest.

    Once chopped, leaves occupy much lessvolume. My neighbor, John, a very serious gardener like me, keeps several large garbagecans filled with pulverized dry leaves for use as mulch when needed. Were I a northerngardener I'd store shredded dry leaves in plastic bags over the winter to mix intocompost piles when spring grass clippings and other more potent materials were available.Some people fear using urban leaves because they may contain automotive pollutantssuch as oil and rubber components. Such worries are probably groundless. Dave Campbellwho ran the City of Portland (Oregon) Bureau of Maintenance leaf composting programsaid he has run tests for heavy metals and pesticide residues on every windrow ofcompost he has made.

    "Almost all our tests so far have shown less than the background level for heavy metals, and no traces of pesticides [including] chlorinated and organophosphated pesticides.... It is very rare for there to be any problem."

    Campbell tells an interesting story thatpoints out how thoroughly composting eliminates pesticide residues. He said,

    "Once I was curious about some leaves we were getting from a city park where I knew the trees had been sprayed with a pesticide just about a month before the leaves fell and we collected them. In this case, I had the uncomposted leaves tested and then the compost tested. In the fresh leaves a trace of . . . residue was detected, but by the time the composting process was finished, no detectable level was found."

    Lime. There is no disputing thatcalcium is a vital soil nutrient as essential to the formation of plant and animalproteins as nitrogen. Soils deficient in calcium can be inexpensively improved byadding agricultural lime which is relatively pure calcium carbonate (CaC03). The use of agricultural lime or dolomitic limein compost piles is somewhat controversial. Even the most authoritative of authoritiesdisagree. There is no disputing that the calcium content of plant material and animalmanure resulting from that plant material is very dependent on the amount of calciumavailable in the soil. Chapter Eight contains quite a thorough discussion of thisvery phenomena. If a compost pile is made from a variety of materials grown on soilsthat contained adequate calcium, then adding additional lime should be unnecessary.However, if the materials being composted are themselves deficient in calcium thenthe organisms of decomposition may not develop fully.

    While preparing this book, I queriedthe venerable Dr. Herbert H. Koepf about lime in the compost heap. Koepf's biodynamicbooks served as my own introduction to gardening in the early 1970s. He is stillactive though in his late seventies. Koepf believes that lime is not necessary whencomposting mixtures that contain significant amounts of manure because the decompositionof proteinaceous materials develops a more or less neutral pH. However, when compostingmixtures of vegetation without manure, the conditions tend to become very acid andbacterial fermentation is inhibited. To correct low pH, Koepf recommends agriculturallime at 25 pounds per ton of vegetation, the weight figured on a dry matter basis.To guestimate dry weight, remember that green vegetation is 70-80 percent water,to prevent organic material like hay from spoiling it is first dried down to below15 percent moisture.

    There is another reason to make surethat a compost pile contains an abundance of calcium. Azobacteria, that can fix nitratenitrogen in mellowing compost piles, depend for their activity on the availabilityof calcium. Adding agricultural lime in such a situation may be very useful, greatlyspeed the decomposition process, and improve the quality of the compost. Albert Howardused small amounts of lime in his compost piles specifically to aid nitrogen fixation.He also incorporated significant quantities of fresh bovine manure at the same time.

    However, adding lime to heating manurepiles results in the loss of large quantities of ammonia gas. Perhaps this is thereason some people are opposed to using lime in any composting process. Keep in mindthat a manure pile is not a compost pile. Although both will heat up and decay, thestarting C/N of a barnyard manure pile runs around 10:1 while a compost heap of yardwaste and kitchen garbage runs 25:1 to 30:1. Any time highly nitrogenous material,such as fresh manures or spring grass clippings, are permitted to decompose withoutadjustment of the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio with less potent stuff, ammonia tendsto be released, lime or not.

    Only agricultural lime or slightlybetter, dolomitic lime, are useful in compost piles. Quicklime or slaked lime aremade from heated limestone and undergo a violent chemical reaction when mixed withwater. They may be fine for making cement, but not for most agricultural purposes.

    Linseed meal. See Cottonseedmeal.

    Manure. Fresh manure can bethe single most useful addition to the compost pile. What makes it special is thepresence of large quantities of active digestive enzymes . These enzymes seem tocontribute to more rapid heating and result in a finer-textured, more completelydecomposed compost that provokes a greater growth response in plants. Manure fromcattle and other multi-stomached ruminants also contains cellulose-decomposing bacteria.Soil animals supply similar digestive enzymes as they work over the litter on theforest floor but before insects and other tiny animals can eat much of a compostheap, well-made piles will heat up, driving out or killing everything except microorganismsand fungi.

    All of the above might be of interestto the country dweller or serious backyard food grower but probably sounds highlyimpractical to most of this book's readers. Don't despair if fresh manure is notavailable or if using it is unappealing. Compost made with fresh, unheated manureworks only a little faster and produces just a slightly better product than compostactivated with seed meals, slaughterhouse concentrates, ground alfalfa, grass clippings,kitchen garbage, or even dried, sacked manures. Compost made without any manure still"makes!"

    When evaluating manure keep in mindthe many pitfalls. Fresh manure is very valuable, but if you obtain some that hasbeen has been heaped up and permitted to heat up, much of its nitrogen may alreadyhave dissipated as ammonia while the valuable digestive enzymes will have been destroyedby the high temperatures at the heap's core. A similar degradation happens to digestiveenzymes when manure is dried and sacked. Usually, dried manure comes from feedlotswhere it has also first been stacked wet and gone through a violent heating process.So if I were going to use sacked dried manure to lower the C/N of a compost pile,I'd evaluate it strictly on its cost per pound of actual nitrogen. In some cases,seed meals might be cheaper and better able to drop the heap's carbon-to-nitrogenratio even more than manure.

    There are many kinds of manure andvarious samples of the same type of manure may not be equal. This demonstrates theprinciple of what goes in comes out. Plants concentrate proteins and mineral nutrientsin their seed so animals fed on seed (like chickens) excrete manure nearly as highin minerals and with a C/N like seed meals (around 8:1). Alfalfa hay is a legumewith a C/N around 12:1. Rabbits fed almost exclusively on alfalfa pellets make arich manure with a similar C/N. Spring grass and high quality hay and other leafygreens have a C/N nearly as good as alfalfa. Livestock fed the best hay supplementedwith grain and silage make fairly rich manure. Pity the unfortunate livestock tryingto survive as "strawburners" eating overly mature grass hay from depletedfields. Their manure will be as poor as the food and soil they are trying to liveon.

    When evaluating manure, also considerthe nature and quantity of bedding mixed into it. Our local boarding stables keeptheir lazy horses on fir sawdust. The idle "riding" horses are usuallyfed very strawy local grass hay with just enough supplemental alfalfa and grain tomaintain a minimal healthy condition. The "horse manure" I've hauled fromthese stables seems more sawdust than manure. It must have a C/N of 50 or 60:1 becauseby itself it will barely heat up.

    Manure mixed with straw is usuallyricher stuff. Often this type comes from dairies. Modern breeds of milk cows mustbe fed seed meals and other concentrates to temporarily sustain them against depletionfrom unnaturally high milk production.

    After rabbit and chicken, horse manurefrom well-fed animals like race horses or true, working animals may come next. Certainlyit is right up there with the best cow manure. Before the era of chemical fertilizer,market gardeners on the outskirts of large cities took wagon loads of produce tomarket and returned with an equivalent weight of "street sweepings." Whatthey most prized was called "short manure," or horse manure without anybedding. Manure and bedding mixtures were referred to as "long manure"and weren't considered nearly as valuable.

    Finally, remember that over half theexcretion of animals is urine. And far too little value is placed on urine. As earlyas 1900 it was well known that if you fed one ton (dry weight) of hay and measuredthe resulting manure after thorough drying, only 800 pounds was left. What happenedto the other 1,200 pounds of dry material? Some, of course, went to grow the animal.Some was enzymatically "burned" as energy fuel and its wastes given offas CO2 and H2O. Most of it was excreted in liquid form. After all, what is digestionbut an enzymatic conversion of dry material into a water solution so it can be circulatedthrough the bloodstream to be used and discarded as needed. Urine also contains numerouscomplex organic substances and cellular breakdown products that improve the healthof the soil ecology.

    However, urine is not easy to capture.It tends to leach into the ground or run off when it should be absorbed into bedding.Chicken manure and the excrements of other fowl are particularly valuable in thisrespect because the liquids and solids of their waste are uniformly mixed so nothingis lost. When Howard worked out his system of making superior compost at Indore,he took full measure of the value of urine and paid great care to its capture anduse.

    Paper is almost pure celluloseand has a very high C/N like straw or sawdust. It can be considered a valuable sourceof bulk for composting if you're using compost as mulch. Looked upon another way,composting can be a practical way to recycle paper at home.

    The key to composting paper is to shredor grind it. Layers of paper will compress into airless mats. Motor-driven hammermillshredders will make short work of dry paper. Once torn into tiny pieces and mixedwith other materials, paper is no more subject to compaction than grass clippings.Even without power shredding equipment, newsprint can be shredded by hand, easilyripped into narrow strips by tearing whole sections along the grain of the paper,not fighting against it.

Evaluating Nitrogen Content

    A one-cubic foot bag of dried steer manure weighs 25 pounds and is labeled 1 percent nitrogen. That means four sacks weighs 100 pounds and contains 1 pound of actual nitrogen.
    A fifty pound bag of cottonseed meal contains six percent nitrogen. Two sacks weighs 100 pounds and contains 6 pounds of actual nitrogen.
    Therefore it takes 24 sacks of steer manure to equal the nitrogen contained in two sacks of cottonseed meal.
    If steer manure costs $1.50 per sack, six pound of actual nitrogen from steer manure costs 24 x $1.50 = $36.00
    If fifty pounds of cottonseed meal costs $7.50, then six pounds of actual nitrogen from cottonseed meal costs 2 x $7.50 = $15.00.
    Now, lets take a brief moment to see why industrial farmers thinking only of immediate financial profit, use chemical fertilizers. Urea, a synthetic form of urine used as nitrogen fertilizer contains 48 percent nitrogen. So 100 pounds of urea contains 48 pounds of nitrogen. That quantity of urea also costs about $15.00!
    Without taking into account its value in terms of phosphorus, potassium and other mineral contents, nitrogen from seed meal costs at least eight times as much per pound as nitrogen from urea.

    Newspapers, even with colored inks,can be safely used in compost piles. Though some colored inks do contain heavy metals,these are not used on newsprint.

    However, before beginning to incorporatenewsprint into your composting, reconsider the analyses of various types of compostbroken out as a table in the previous chapter. The main reason many municipal compostingprograms make a low-grade product with such a high C/N is the large proportion ofpaper used. If your compost is intended for use as mulch around perennial beds orto be screened and broadcast atop lawns, then having a nitrogen-poor product is oflittle consequence. But if your compost is headed for the vegetable garden or willbe used to grow the largest possible prized flowers then perhaps newsprint couldbe recycled in another way.

    Cardboard, especially corrugated material,is superior to newsprint for compost making because its biodegradable glues containsignificant amounts of nitrogen. Worms love to consume cardboard mulch. Like otherforms of paper, cardboard should be shredded, ground or chopped as finely as possible,and thoroughly mixed with other materials when composted.

    Pet wastes may contain diseaseorganisms that infect humans. Though municipal composting systems can safely eliminatesuch diseases, home composting of dog and cat manure may be risky if the compostis intended for food gardening.

    Phosphate rock. If your gardensoil is deficient in phosphorus, adding rock phosphate to the compost pile may accelerateits availability in the garden, far more effectively than adding phosphate to soil.If the vegetation in your vicinity comes from soils similarly deficient in phosphorus,adding phosphate rock will support a healthier decomposition ecology and improvethe quality of your compost. Five to ten pounds of rock phosphate added to a cubicyard of uncomposted organic matter is about the right amount.

    Rice hulls: See Buckwheathulls.

    Rock dust. All plant nutrientsexcept nitrogen originally come from decomposing rock. Not all rocks contain equalconcentrations and assortments of the elements plants use for nutrients. Consequently,not all soils lustily grow healthy plants. One very natural way to improve the overall fertility of soil is to spread and till in finely ground rock flour make fromhighly mineralized rocks.

    This method is not a new idea. Limestoneand dolomite--soft, easily powdered rocks--have been used for centuries to add calciumand magnesium. For over a century, rock phosphate and kainite--a soft, readily solublenaturally occurring rock rich in potassium, magnesium and sulfur--have been groundand used as fertilizer. Other natural rock sources like Jersey greensand have longbeen used in the eastern United States on some unusual potassium-deficient soils.

    Lately it has become fashionable toremineralize the earth with heavy applications of rock flours. Unlike most fads andtrends, this one is wise and should endure. The best rocks to use are finely ground"basic" igneous rocks like basalts. They are called basic as opposed to"acid" rocks because they are richer in calcium and magnesium with lesserquantities of potassium. When soil forms from these materials it tends to not beacid. Most basic igneous rocks also contain a wide range of trace mineral nutrients.I have observed marked improvements in plant growth by incorporating ordinary basaltdust that I personally shoveled from below a conveyor belt roller at a local quarrywhere crushed rock was being prepared for road building. Basalt dust was an unintentionalbyproduct.

    Though highly mineralized rock dustmay be a valuable soil amendment, its value must equal its cost. Application ratesof one or two tons per acre are minimal. John Hamaker's The Survival of Civilizationsuggests eight to ten tons per acre the first application and then one or twotons every few years thereafter. This means the correct price for rock dust is similarto the price for agricultural lime; in my region that's about $60 to $80 a ton insacks. Local farmers pay about $40 a ton in bulk, including spreading on your fieldby the seller. A fifty-pound sack of rock dust should retail for about $2. Thesedays it probably costs several times that price, tending to keep rock dust a noveltyitem.

    The activities of fungi and bacteriaare the most potent forces making nutrients available to plants. As useful as tillingrock powders into soil may be, the intense biological activity of the compost pileaccelerates their availability. And the presence of these minerals might well makea compost pile containing nutrient-deficient vegetation work faster and become betterfertilizer. Were the right types of rock dust available and cheap, I'd make it about5 percent by volume of my heap, and equal that with rich soil.

    Safflowerseed meal. See Cottonseedmeal.

    Sawdust contains virtually nothingbut carbon. In small quantities it is useful to fluff up compost piles and preventcompaction. However this is only true of coarse material like that from sawmillsor chain saws. The fine saw dust from carpentry and cabinet work may compact andbecome airless. See Paper for a discussion of lowering the fertilizing valueof compost with high C/N materials.

    Seaweed when freshly gatheredis an extraordinary material for the compost pile. Like most living things from theocean seaweeds are rich in all of the trace minerals and contain significant amountsof the major nutrients, especially potassium, with lesser amounts of phosphorus andnitrogen. Seaweeds enrich the heap, decompose very rapidly, and assist other materialsto break down. Though heavy and often awkward to gather and haul, if they are available,seaweeds should not be permitted to go to waste.

    Those with unlimited money may usesprinklings of kelp meal in the compost pile to get a similar effect. However, kelpmeal may be more economically used as part of a complete organic fertilizer mixturethat is worked into soil.

    Shrub and tree prunings aredifficult materials to compost unless you have a shredder/chipper. Even after beingincorporated into one hot compost heap after another, half-inch diameter twigs maytake several years to fully decompose. And turning a heap containing long branchescan be very difficult. But buying power equipment just to grind a few cart loadsof hedge and tree prunings each year may not be economical. My suggestion is to neatlytie any stick larger than your little finger into tight bundles about one foot indiameter and about 16 inches long and then burn these "faggots" in thefireplace or wood stove. This will be less work in the long run.

    Soil is an often overlooked but criticallyimportant part of the compost pile. Least of its numerous benefits, soil containsinfinitudes of microorganisms that help start out decomposition. Many compostablematerials come with bits of soil already attached and few are sterile in themselves.But extra soil ensures that there will initially be a sufficient number and varietyof these valuable organisms. Soil also contains insoluble minerals that are madesoluble by biological activity. Some of these minerals may be in short supply inthe organic matter itself and their addition may improve the health and vigor ofthe whole decomposition ecology. A generous addition of rock dust may do this evenbetter.

    Most important, soil contains nitrificationmicroorganisms that readily convert ammonia gas to nitrates, and clay that will catchand temporarily hold ammonia. Nitrifying bacteria do not live outside of soil. Finally,a several inch thick layer of soil capping the heap serves as an extra insulator,holding in heat, raising the core temperature and helping seal in moisture. Makinga compost heap as much as 10 percent soil by dry weight is the right target

    Try thinking of soil somewhat likethe moderators in an atomic reactor, controlling the reaction by trapping neutrons.Soil won't change the C/N of a heap but not being subject to significant breakdownit will slightly lower the maximum temperature of decomposition; while trapping ammoniaemissions; and creating better conditions for nitrogen fixing bacteria to improvethe C/N as the heap cools and ripens.

    Soybean meal. See Cottonseedmeal.

    Straw is a carboniferous materialsimilar to sawdust but usually contains more nutrients. It is a valuable aerator,each stalk acting as a tube for air to enter and move through the pile. Large quantitiesof long straw can make it very difficult to turn a heap the first time. I'd muchprefer to have manure mixed with straw than with sawdust.

    Sunflowerseed meal. See Cottonseedmeal.

    Tankage is another slaughterhouseor rendering plant waste consisting of all animal refuse except blood and fat. Locallyit is called meat meal. See Hoof and horn meal.

    Tofu factory waste. Okara isthe pulp left after soy milk has been squeezed from cooked, ground soybeans. Small-scaletofu makers will have many gallons of okara to dispose of each day. It makes goodpig food so there may be competition to obtain it. Like any other seed waste, okarais high in nitrogen and will be wet and readily putrefiable like brewery waste. Mixinto compost piles immediately.

    Urine. See Manure.

    Weeds. Their nutrient contentis highly variable depending on the species and age of the plant. Weeds gone to seedare both low in nitrogen and require locating in the center of a hot heap to killoff the seeds. Tender young weeds are as rich in nitrogen as spring grass.

    Weeds that propagate through undergroundstems or rhizomes like quack-grass, Johnsongrass, bittersweet, and the like are betterburnt.

    Wood ash from hardwoods is richin potassium and contains significant amounts of calcium and other minerals. Ashfrom conifers may be similarly rich in potassium but contains little else. Wood ashesspread on the ground tend to lose their nutrients rapidly through leaching. If thesenutrients are needed in your soil, then add the ash to your compost piles where itwill become an unreachable part of the biomass that will be gradually released inthe garden when the compost is used.

    Wood chips are slow to decomposealthough they may be added to the compost pile if one is not in a hurry. Their chunkinessand stiff mechanical properties help aerate a heap. They are somewhat more nutrientrich than sawdust.

    Wool wastes are also calledshoddy. See Hair.

HOME PAGE     SovereigntyLibrary    Go To Chapter Five