"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Much Ado About Compost

This past fall I decided that I have had enough with compost piles. Each year we end up with this massive pile of debris from the fall garden clean-up. Every spring one wheel barrow after another of composted material is hauled into the garden. In between we have to keep this huge pile turned so that it will break down enough to use. So this last fall, instead of continuing the ritual of hauling stuff to the pile, turning and waiting, and then hauling it all back into the garden. I decided to leave it right where it was.

They call this sheet composting, which is simply working matter straightaway into the soil and letting it break down there instead of in a pile. Supposedly, this can cause a temporary depletion of nitrogen in one's soil. This is not a issue for me as my soil is a little too high in nitrogen anyway, mostly due to the giant, hot, pile of compost that I have been using. Too much nitrogen is conducive to aphids and this has been a problem for us lately; one reason I am looking for a different method of adding organic material to my garden.

Before winter I pulled up all of the remaining plant materials, broke it up a bit, and distributed it amongst the garden rows. My fava bean plants, of which we grow many, were chopped up and added lightly over the whole garden. Weeds were left to grow after August, being careful not to let them go to seed, so that they would be there to provide material as well. We are fortunate to have a yard full of maple and mountain ash trees that shed huge amounts of leaves every year and these were also spread throughout the garden.

Wood ash was then added to each row, our soil is very acidic and this helps to neutralize it. I'm always careful to spread it lightly so as not to make the soil too alkaline. Potatoes like acidic soil while my brassicas do not...hence the aphid problems. Ash is obtained from the wood stove and also collected from burn piles created during spring clean-up. It must be stored in a manner so that rain will not leach the beneficial nutrients away and is kept in buckets in the barn - after it has cooled of course. I have observed in previous years that some crops really love having a bit of ash worked into the soil around them. I have grown freakishly huge carrots and beets in areas where ash has been spread.

The project was concluded by shoveling a thin layer of dirt over the top of everything. It is now up to the worms to work their magic. I know from prior experience that whereas bacteria break down a hot compost pile earth worms do most of the work in an area that has been sheet mulched. I always find many more worms in a cooler pile of leaves or compost than are ever found in a really warm one.

Hopefully the outcome will be good, saving time and effort. I will then only have a small kitchen scrap and chicken manure pile to tend which does need to be hot in order to destroy pathogens.


chamoisee said...

I'm in northern Idaho too. My strategy for dealing with manure (goat, mixed with hay stems and occasionally straw) was thus:

Clean the barn, and tile an area in the garden which needs raised beds with sheets of brown corrugated cardboard. Dump the manure on top of the cardboard, in the general dimensions of a raised bed but higher, up to 24" high. This should be done during April.

Let the long mounds of manure settle and smell for a few days, and then go out with a posthole digger, some soil, a coffee can, and squash seeds (or pumpkins). Push the closed digger into the mound to the depth of the blades, and then open the baldes and withdraw it, and dump a can of soil into the opening. Push several squash seeds into the soil, move down the length of the mound 2-3 feet, and repeat until the mounds are all planted.

You can do this 2-3 weeks before other people would even dream of planting squash, before Mother's day, and here's why: That fresh manure heats up and helps germinate the squash seeds and keeps them warmer than the surrounding area. Remay can be draped over the mounds just in case...but I never needed it.

The squash will go crazy. Just make sure to water it well. I had hundred of pounds of squash and giant pumpkins...enough for animal feed, my own large family, and to sell, too.

In the fall, you have a very nice raised bed with no tilling required, and it has settled to about half its original height. I wouldn't plant potatoes in it though, they tend to get scab if done the first year after the squash.

This worked so well for me that I don't make compost piles anymore.

Mr. H said...


What a great idea, I will have to try that as I can definitely see how it would work. I often notice tomato seedlings coming up in our compost piles well before other voluntary ones.

Is there any particular squash that does best for you in this area? Thanks for visiting and for the good information on growing in compost.


chamoisee said...

Acorn is reliable, but I don't like the flavor. I typically plant an un-named maxima type that has thick, dry, sweet flesh. The shape and color can be variable, but I have saved seed from it for years here, so only the plants adapted to this area are saved from. other than that...Sweetmeat, Buttercup, Hubbard, Banana...

I could not get Butternut to ripen here...ever. Even with the manure piles. Go figure.

If you want some of the un-named seed, I can leave a packet at one of the health foods stores or at Mitchell's in Priest River.

Mr. H said...


It sounds like we both plant the same varieties of squash for the most part. I tried butternut for the first time last year and only got a few immature squash to develop. Sugar pie pumpkins do really well for me in this area, I just used the last one up the other day.

I'm full up on squash seed at this time but thank you so much for the offer. I will be focusing more and more upon saving my own seeds going forward. If you ever notice any, that I mention on this blog, that you would like to try let me know and I will send some your way.

It's nice to know that there are at least a few other people in northern Idaho that grow their own food. I think I will try your growing method on a few squash this year. With winter extending its reach of late, I may need to get an earlier start on certain crops.

Have a great day,


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