Community Sustainability: Real dirt on locals

Francis Mangels, columnist

Community Sustainability column by Francis Mangels

Here is how to make your garden and fruit trees produce as well as weather allows.

I have good luck with composting, the only sustainable food-growing method. Some ways work, some ways don’t, and some stuff on sale downtown doesn’t help.

I have great success with a half and half mix of lawn clippings and chopped leaves. I mix the grass thoroughly with chopped leaves from last fall, and by midsummer I have black compost that grows early girl tomatoes five feet high, four feet high zucchini, and 15 feet high beans.

Chop leaves. I run them through a lawnmower attachment I invented, and it chops leaves as fine as you want. Anything smaller than a half inch square works. Whole leaves don’t mix and rot enough. Bacteria need a chopped leaf to start working.

Mix in green grass. It has plenty of moisture and nutrients to feed good bacteria.  Leaves provide structure and keep mold out. Got mold? Not enough leaves. The pile of leaves and grass will get so hot with feverish bacteria feeding it kills the mold and just about everything bad in the pile. The pile should feel hot inside.

Turn the pile weekly or so, and bacteria chew up things more uniformly and kill off bad guys in the pile. The pile will turn black and shrink to about a third, smelling faintly like sweet cow manure.

Water the pile if it feels dry or cools down. Bacteria need water, and I usually make my pile into a volcano shape and sprinkle enough water on top that it comes out the bottom. When things turn black you don’t need much water, and earthworms move in for good measure. It’s ready.

If things don’t go as above, bury what you have into the top foot of soil in the fall, and by spring bacteria complete the job. Fall mulch is best, and soil is rich and ready by spring.

Now for a critique of bad advice I hear locally.

Don’t buy “starter bacteria for compost piles.” First, such products are contaminated with outside chemicals and fungi. Second, our local bacteria are adapted to our conditions and do better than any store product.

If you really must, throw a few shovels of dark topsoil onto the pile you started and the bacteria will quickly work into the pile.

Don’t believe claims of “miracle fast compost bins and formulas.” Composting takes 10 to 14 weeks locally depending on weather and moisture no matter what.

Beware of bagged compost. Most of this is wood chips or sawdust soaked in wet manure. It has a small immediate good effect, but next year the wood chips are still there with no urea or manure. Wood robs soil and plants of nutrient and plants do poorly. Compost with wood chips is not worth the bag it came in.

Avoid sawdust, pine needles, or any woody, twiggy, source. Avoid anything from evergreen trees. This material has a very high nutrient demand for bacteria to eat it. It will yellow out your plants the second year if not the first, and ruin the garden. Chips also promote hungry bugs and slugs.

Avoid wood ash. This drives soil and compost into basic pH reactions. Compost and almost all garden edibles must have an acidic soil to produce well. Also, do not add any fertilizer with aluminum, as it drives soil basic.

If you really must, a cup of 32-32-32-4 chemical fertilizer per cubic yard can speed up the composting. However, a few shovels of manure on top works better.

Basic humus is good if the source is free of heavy metals and chemicals.

Compost bin sellers make outrageous claims. The only thing they really offer is ease of turning the pile. You can fork the pile over, like I do, or pay $200 per eight cubic feet to tumble in their bin.

I have to admit it is easier and the bins look nicer, but I still get very good compost in the same time they do. Also, these sellers don’t understand snow damage or unloading problems. Summary: hardly worth the bother or expense.

Manure is simply animal-finished compost. In order, the best are rabbit, sheep, goat, chicken, cow, horse. Anybody with rabbits or chickens, call me! Manure from inside the barn is good. Corral or pen scrapings have too many weeds.

I offer free garden consultations to anyone who wants trees, vines and vegetables. If you have questions, you can give me a call 926-0311 or take my gardening class at COS.

With the price of food going up due to fuel costs, and if we are to become a sustainable society, we must make our agriculture local. Granny’s garden is again reality.