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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

3. Soil: Using Organic Materials

Composting

How should all these organic materials be transformed into fertility? There are a number of options. Classically, a major use for them was making compost. Most of you are probably familiar with the basic “recipe’’: Assemble layers of nitrogen sources (animal manures, fresh cut grass, weeds, hay) and high-carbon sources (leaves, straw, cornstalks). Technically, the carbon to nitrogen ratio should be about 30:1 and the level of moisture needs to be right—midway between powder dry and sopping wet—but in practice, you will find there is considerable leeway. You will also find that compost making is as much art as science, and you will use your senses to discover the right “formula’’ for success. A whiff of ammonia? Too much nitrogen-rich material in proportion to carbon. Not heating up? Too much carbon. Smell bad? Too wet. Use a temperature probe? Nah, just put your hand into the pile. Believe me, you won’t be able to hold it there more than a few seconds in a properly working compost pile. Temperature dropping? Time to turn the heap, introduce more oxygen and intermix the materials, and spark a new decomposition peak.

Indeed, the compost heap has come to be thought of as the very heart of organic gardening. But you know something? I don’t compost. There—I’ve said it and I’m glad! Even though Sir Albert Howard or Robert Rodale would turn over in their graves to hear me say it, here is one committed organic gardener who no longer makes compost heaps. Now, I recommend them to all you younger go-getters who want to turn trash into treasure—but I’m getting older every day, and more defeated by the sheer labor required in classical composting. I’m looking for an easier way out. I suggest three for your consideration.

Worm-bin

Worm Bin

Vermicomposting

If you’re not familiar with vermicomposting, please make it your next research project. Earthworms transform almost any organic materials into—well, like any of us, into poop. Earthworm poop (“castings’’) is one of the most potent natural fertilizers you can use, not only because of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in forms easily used by plants, but because it carries a huge load of beneficial microbes which boost the numbers and diversity of soil life. Vermicomposting is not difficult, it is mainly a question of the scale at which you wish to work. You can buy or make small earthworm bins to process your kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc. In my own case, I recently decided to go for the (black) gold, and installed close to 300 square feet of earthworm bins, 16 inches deep. I am using them to compost all the pony poop I can get from a neighbor who raises and boards horses; and in the future the bins will be the major source of added fertility in my gardens.

A few things to note about vermicomposting: The worms used are not the “night crawler’’ types that burrow deep into soil and deposit their castings at the soil surface. Have you ever dug into a heap of aged manure? The small red earthworms you uncovered are the type used in vermicomposting. They specialize in such a high-organic, nutrient-dense environment, and actually do not long survive in soil itself. They are called “red wrigglers’’ or “manure worms.’’ Eisenia foetida is the species most often used. It is most common to use a protected container or bin for vermiculture. It’s not impossible to set up an outdoor vermicomposting operation, but it must be designed to exclude moles—who love earthworms!—and curiosity seekers like your neighbor’s dog. The exact way to set up the bedding and food source for the worms depends on the materials used. For example, they convert pony poop to castings in short order. They also convert coarser, more high-carbon materials like leaves or straw, but the process takes much longer. Please note that the addition of some materials to the worm bin in effect creates a compost heap, which heats up. For example, manure mixed with straw will certainly heat. The high heat will kill your composting worms (as will some of the gases given off in a rapid decomposition). The solution is either to allow the heap to work awhile and cool off before adding worms, or add the heat-generating material to one part only of an established bin, so the worms have plenty of room to retreat from the new material and “nibble’’ around the edges until heat has gone down sufficiently.

Mulches

Mulch

Mulching

A second way a lazy gardener such as myself might use organic materials—especially those that would take longer to break down in the worm bins, such as straw and leaves—is to mulch. Spreading mulches is easier than turning compost heaps. And make no mistake, all that organic matter ends up incorporated into the soil as surely as if it had been laboriously turned into compost: The microbes, soil-burrowing earthworms (remember them?), and other soil life in the contact zone between mulch and soil decompose them into humus over time. All gardeners who have used mulches have seen how their garden “eats’’ them! You lay down a nice thick layer of mulch, only to discover later in the season that it has disappeared, and it’s time to add more.

Layer composting

We can combine mulching and composting in a way that has been called sheet mulching, or layer composting, or even “lasagna gardening.’’ The idea is that we lay down the materials we might use to make a compost heap in layers, and allow the decomposition process to proceed in place, rather than turning them in a compost heap. The order of the layering is not arbitrary—the more volatile, leachable layers (e.g., aged manures) are laid down first and covered by the coarser, drier material which protects from drying. More about this approach to composting below.