Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Few Things I've Learned About Compost

It was my goal from the start of my Backyard Nest Egg project to learn to make compost. I have always gardened without chemical fertilizers, usually with purchased commercial chicken manure. (When I started my first garden back in 1981, I got a lot of advice from a friend’s mother. This woman had decades of experience growing her own food, beginning in her childhood in rural Kentucky. She had a fantastically productive garden and swore by chicken manure, so I followed her lead.)

Since I hadn’t yet hatched the crazy chicken project, and I wanted to minimize purchased inputs, I needed to learn how to make my own fertilizer by composting vegetable waste from the kitchen, egg shells, coffee grounds (a great source of nitrogen), fallen tree leaves, and other appropriate materials. As always, my first concern was odor. It was hard for me to believe that rotting refuse would not “stink to high heaven,” to use one of my mother’s phrases. However, if mixed in the right proportions, about four parts “dry” or “brown” materials to one part “wet” or “green” you won’t have any problems. In fact, if your compost pile does stink, it’s a sure sign you need to adjust your mix.

The best book I’ve found on how to do it is Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost. This guy is so enthusiastic about the benefits of compost, you can’t wait to get started on your own steaming pile of garbage. It’s a small volume in which McGrath explains clearly, succinctly, and with humor, how to make compost, various ways to speed up the process, such as building a “compost chimney,” and how best to use the finished product.

The next step was deciding what type of compost bin to use. I immediately ruled out the traditional open, three bin system. It’s unattractive (aesthetics is always a consideration for me) and takes up too much space. The city was selling Earth Machine composters (similar to the photo above left) and these at first seemed a great idea. They’re covered plastic bins with lids that twist and lock to keep animals out, and they take up little space.

However, after buying and using one, I realized the Earth Machine has two serious design problems. First, it is difficult to turn the compost in one of those bins. The bin is tapered, wider at the bottom than at the top. The result is a top opening too small to get the angle I need to easily move a tool through the compost. We even bought one of those metal compost aerators, but I found it less useful than a hoe for adequately moving the compost. Basically, you move the aerator through the compost like you’re churning butter. However, it takes a lot of effort and seems to move little of the material. Even using a hoe, it was serious WORK to thoroughly turn the pile.

The second problem is getting your compost out. The Earth Machine has a little door at the bottom for removing compost, but it’s rather small. You can’t get a full-size shovel through there. I found myself scrabbling around on the ground to get the stuff.

I suppose I could have just removed the bin and scooped up the compost. However, the thing is secured to the ground with heavy plastic pegs. I’d have to pry those up first, and then what if I didn’t want to use all the compost at that moment? I’d have to get the bin back over a shifting pile and pound the pegs in again.

The ideal solution for me is the tumbling composter. Basically, these are barrels with a rod through the center on which the barrel turns. (See photo above.) These are fantastic labor-savers. Instead of turning big loads of material with a pitchfork (three-bin method) or laboriously churning the contents of an Earth Machine with the ineffectual aerator tool, you merely spin the barrel on its rod. This both makes the chore easier now, and enables me to continue this task into old age. When I want to remove the contents, I just take off the lid, and tip the barrel. I can empty the whole load into a wheelbarrow, or pour out just a bucketful.

Ads for commercially produced tumbling composters generally claim that they make compost faster than other composters. Mother Earth News staff tested this claim and concluded that tumblers produce compost faster only because gardeners turn them more frequently than compost in other types of bins. If you build two compost piles of roughly the same size and ingredients, one in a tumbler, and one in another kind of bin, and turn both piles with the same frequency, they will produce finished compost at the same time.

Commercially produced tumbling composters are ridiculously expensive, with prices of $200 or even $300. However, they are relatively simple to make - (check out this video on YouTube) – provided you can lay your hands on a barrel. That was my stumbling block. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, or I just don’t have the right contacts, but I couldn’t find one.

Eventually, I found a local guy on Craigslist who builds composters (including the one in the photo above) from barrels he acquires from an undisclosed source. (Even he claimed he was having trouble getting barrels this year.) We bought his last two composters. I keep them behind the chicken coop, where they are handy, but out-of-site, and turn them often.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Chickens Have Landed

I’m not a “pet person.” I’ve never had a pet and never wanted one. It’s not that I hate animals; I was just never interested. I don’t go all gaga over baby animals. I’ve never felt the urge to pet a gorgeous cat or play with an adorable dog. I’m blessed (or cursed, depending on the situation) with a very strong sense of smell. I can smell odors from a distance that others have to get up close to smell. So animals often offend my olfactory senses.

I’m also a fairly fastidious person, at least about some things, so I feel squeamish about the practices of some pet owners, especially when it comes to food. I’m sure I irritated my sister-in-law Cara, at least a little, by shrieking for someone to get the dog out of the kitchen when my brother Jess and I were cooking. I’ve also been known to wrinkle my nose when my sister Teresa’s son Jeremy takes his pet rodent out of its cage to play with it. (Is it a guinea pig? A ferret? A rat? I can’t remember.)

So when I announced that I was thinking of getting chickens, I’m sure my relatives thought I was delusional; that it would either never happen, or wouldn’t last long. “I just can’t see you with chickens,” my sister Donna remarked mildly. I’m sure the others expressed stronger opinions among themselves. Our then 13-year-old grandson Nathan couldn’t stop laughing. My husband Rick acted like it was a bad joke, and I played it that way for awhile, pretending it was just a ploy to annoy him.

Why in the world did think I wanted chickens? I blame filmmakers Tashai Lovington & Robert Lughai. I attended a screening of their film Mad City Chickens at the 2008 Wisconsin film fest. The film centers on chicken aficionados in Madison, Wisconsin, but playfully contextualizes their multiple stories in the larger historical tradition of chicken keeping. Unlike most of the other film fest screenings, this one had a party atmosphere. Many of the chicken people featured in the film were in attendance, handing out chicken buttons, literature, peeps, and one woman dressed in chicken costume handed out chocolate eggs.

Their sense of fun was contagious and the chickens were gorgeous. Clearly, the filmmakers love chickens – they photographed them so beautifully. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of chickens. My experience of chickens up to that time was of plastic film covered bloodless chunks of flesh in a supermarket. I began to wonder whether I might like to keep chickens.

They fit perfectly with my notion of a backyard nest egg. I’d been thinking about how to get a protein source in the garden, perhaps by cutting down some old maple trees to plant nut trees. I also knew that pastured chickens produce healthier eggs, with less cholesterol and saturated fat, and more omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, and vitamins A and E. Chickens also fit with the principle of minimizing purchased inputs by producing manure for garden. I’d also heard that they eat a lot of bugs; some people even claim their Japanese beetle problems disappeared once they got chickens.

I gave myself a year to really think it through and do my research. I read everything I could find, from message boards on websites to agricultural extension articles to poultry-raising books. I visited local coops during the 2008 Mad City Chicken Coop Tour. (Note to those in the Madison area: the 2009 tour is on August 15th). The tour allowed me to see different kinds of coops, talk to owners about chicken-keeping, and find out whether they were as smelly as some people claim. (The coops, not the owners. Turns out none were too stinky, even on a hot summer afternoon, but I’m guessing that’s partly because they cleaned the coops before the tour.)

I got my first baby chicks in May. Although I thought of them as livestock, rather than pets, I’m secretly (or maybe obviously?) growing a bit fond of them. Backyard chickens occupy a complicated border region between pets and livestock. It’s an interesting journey I’ll be detailing in future posts. Some days, when I’m scooping their poop from the coop, I’m still a little surprised to find myself here. I think about my friend Laura in Omaha gushing, “You’re living my dream!” This is some people’s dream, I remind myself. And I laugh and I laugh.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hot Picks in a Cool Summer

I’m gradually developing a set a principles for gardening as a nest egg, or an investment in food security. They include things like minimizing purchased inputs, such as fertilizer, by making your own compost and keeping chickens for manure, finding and developing methods for simplifying the work, so that even into old age, one can continue to garden, planting perennial fruits and vegetables, such as berry bushes, asparagus, and multiplier onions, and planting what I call “sure bets.”

“Sure bets” are crops you can count in, in good times and bad; crops that will produce in poor soil or when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In some cases, a “sure bet” may be a specific cultivar. In others, it may be a method of growing that can be counted on as a “sure bet.”

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, the summer has been unseasonably cool, frequently with night-time lows in the 50s and daytime highs only in the 70s. We had a record low high in mid-July of only 66 degrees F. Because I kept a fairly good gardening journal last year, with lots of photographs, it’s glaringly obvious that my vegetable garden is far behind where it was this time last year. If I really needed to produce a significant proportion of our vegetables in our backyard, (as I think many of us will have to do in the future), we’d go hungry this year.

However, I did actually harvest some warm weather vegetables last week-end, during our record low high. How did I do it? I grew those vegetables in clay pots placed on stone pavers. I learned this lesson last year when I grew jalapeƱos along a southern facing wall, hoping for reflected heat and light. They limped along and produced a few chiles, but the outstanding performer was a single Anaheim in a clay pot. We harvested dozens of chiles from that single plant. I was astonished because, although I knew the clay pot would be warm, I thought the southern wall strategy, that I’d used to good effect when we were living in the Pacific Northwest, would work as well, or better, since the plants were in the ground. I had no idea that a vegetable in a container could be so prolific.

So this year I planted all my chiles in clay pots (I have half a dozen – jalapeƱos, Anaheims, and poblanos), harvested the first 8 during our record low high week-end, and enjoyed some fresh salsa. I had a similar experience with eggplants last year, planted another in a clay pot this year, and have already harvested and grilled the beautiful fruit you see in the photo above.

Containers are invaluable in small gardens, where space is at a premium. Clearly, clay pots are also about as sure a bet as you can get when it comes to improving production in cool climates. Don’t waste precious time, like I did, learning the hard way how best to use containers. Get Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey’s terrific book The Bountiful Container.

I've picked up other, more lavishly illustrated container gardening books, with gorgeous color photographs, for just a few dollars on remainder. They're worth almost what I paid for them when it comes to advice for actually producing a significant crop. McGee and Stuckey’s book is packed with useful information, including which vegetables and fruits are worth trying to grow in containers and which are not, which varieties grow best, methods of planting, plant diseases, garden design, and recipes. It’s the only container gardening book I’ve found that is serious about food production.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What Does My Garden Mean to Me?

There are so many layers of meaning and intent. I grow my garden as part of my program to regain my health, as an antidote to the years of graduate school that corroded my physical (and spiritual) well-being. During those years, I spent too much time sitting, thinking, reading. We have evolved to move, not to be immobile and utilize only our brains. Gardening nourishes the body by requiring time spent outside in physical labor and by providing a source of organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

I garden as an investment, the “greenest” investment one can make for retirement. Financial guru Catherine Austin Fitts advises
rethinking diversification” of one’s investments from the traditional portfolio, to multiple types of assets including tangible assets, such as a paid-off home and inventory of household goods; and social capital, such as mutually supportive networks of family and friends, multiple skill sets, and our physical health. She writes:

Diversification means that we invest in our physical and mental well-being. We invest our time in understanding the toxic chemicals, drugs and other influences that increasingly contribute to poor health and cause us to need so much more funding for more drugs and medical treatments to cure what ails us. One of the greatest – and growing — threats to our financial health is physical illness. The notion that corporate stock investments will create security while one saves money eating unhealthy food is contradictory to the principles of building real wealth.

My gardening “investments” include dwarf cherry trees and blueberry bushes (high in antioxidants), columnar apple trees, strawberries (higher in vitamin C than citrus fruit), perennial vegetables such as asparagus and multiplier onions, and herbs for medicinal and culinary uses.

Additionally, I invest in the land, by turning kitchen scraps and chicken manure into rich compost and by shredding every leaf in autumn from the many trees in and around our yard to create a rich mulch for the garden that will contribute to building up the soil over time.

I garden to promote our health in old age by ensuring we have access to high quality organic fruits and vegetables even on a fixed income. By the time my husband retires in 10 years, we will have a paid off home, mature fruit trees and berry bushes, established perennial vegetables, and productive soil in which to grow our annual crop of vegetables and melons.

I garden because I have learned that food will become less abundant and thus more costly in the future. Climate change has already resulted in drought in many places – such as Australia and Africa. California, where almost half of our nation’s fruit and vegetables are grown, is in its third year of a drought serious enough to have been declared a state emergency by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. There
many thousands of acres were not planted this year (2009) because farmers could not get loans without guaranteed access to water for irrigation.

I garden because fossil fuel depletion and “peak oil” means that it will become more expensive to ship food cross-country and around the world. And that the fertilizers derived from natural gas that made possible abundant harvests in depleted soil will become more expensive.

I increasingly grow heirloom vegetables and am learning to save seeds and slips as a political act of resistance to the oppression of Monsanto and other corporate interests who seek to force us all to buy seeds from them every year for sustenance, by foisting GM and terminator seed technology on us and crushing farmers who attempt to save and develop their own seeds. Of terminator seeds, which are genetically designed to be sterile after producing one season’s crop, Indian activist Vandana Shiva has said, “You really need to have a brutal mind . . . to even think in those terms. But quite clearly, the profits are so much higher” (see the documentary film,
The Corporation.)

Finally, I garden now for the same reasons I began my first garden, nearly 30 years ago – the joy of watching a seed sprout, the satisfaction of harvesting food we produced ourselves, the pleasure of savoring the flavor of fresh picked produce, and the sense of peace I feel when working in the garden.