I really want to get more into how to make compost but I just have to say something about this video on NOVA I saw the other night. Titled Earth From Space, it’s about satellites capturing different life and energy forces on Earth from space and it’s about as entertaining as the latest Star Track movie. It covers how currents from Antarctica control climate temperatures all over the planet, how lava eruptions in the ocean create plankton, the basis for life on our planet and how that same plankton in the form of dust travels from the Sahara Desert to the Amazon nourishing its rainforests. What does it have to do with gardening? Pretty much everything but I won’t give it all away…
Straw. Smells like the country. Reminds me of hoe downs, agricultural fairs and the Wizard of Oz. Relatively cheap. Great to use for mulch. NOT!!! Read this and don’t use straw, hay or any other additive you don’t know for sure how it was made or grown unless you want things in your garden like clopyralid and aminopyralid; herbacides that cause vegetable plants to be stunted, distorted or not to come up at all. Today I managed to get most of it out of my vegetable garden. What a waste!
Compost is just amazing and like everything else involved with growing food; complicated. I’m reading Steve Solomon’s chapter about it and for my own sake I’m going to attempt to summarize it.
It starts with organic matter that hasn’t been broken down by the microorganisms in the soil. This organic matter will eventually break down under any circumstance but it will break down at different speeds and end in different ways according to a variety of factors. One of those factors is the carbon to nitrogen ratio (or C:N) of the organic material. Cardboard, for example, has a lot of carbon and not a lot of nitrogen. Therefore, it’s carbon to nitrogen ratio is high. Bonemeal, on the other hand, has a lot of more nitrogen and therefore it’s carbon to nitrogen ratio is low. To read more about this visit this site.
Now there’s this thing called humus (pronounced youmus, not hummus, the chickpea spread) which is the stable residue of decomposed organic matter. It’s C:N ratio is usually 12:1. Humus is like the structure of good soil. It gives it the ability to hold moisture and nutrients.
If organic matter with a higher C:N ratio than 12:1 is added to the soil, microorganisms in the soil will “burn” it’s carbon for fuel and save the nitrogen until the 12:1 C:N ratio is reached. At the end of this process the soil will have more humus and be healthier. At this point any left over nitrogen can be used by plants. Apparently, the soil holds the organic matter nutrients from the plants until the microorganisms have all they want. At this point the soil has become more fertile.
If organic matter with a lower C:N ratio than 12:1 is added to the soil, the microorganisms will convert the excess nitrogen to ammonia gas until the stable 12:1 C:N ratio is reached. The ammonia is then converted by other bacteria into water-soluble nitrates that make plants grow fast. The only problem is there won’t be any humus left after the conversion and that means less fertile soil. This is because nitrates cause soil microbes to multiply and attack humus.
This is why it’s usually best to add decomposed organic matter to soil instead of just adding organic matter especially when you want to grow something right away. Even though you will get more humus out of a higher C:N ratio, during that microorganism snack time, you’ll be basically getting nothing for the plants until snack time is over. And to make matters worse, the higher the C:N ratio, the longer it takes for snack time to be over and the longer it will take for a plant to reap the benefits of the added organic matter and the soil will actually be worse than it was before adding the organic matter, but only temporarily.
This part really can be tricky even when following Steve Solomon’s Complete Organic Fertilizer Recipe. Once you’ve read the article read on. No need for me to summarize it.
His book made it sound like it would be as easy as going to a farm and seed store and just asking for the ingredients. For some reason I figured the suppliers, especially the organic supplier would know all about Steve Solomon and his fertilizer mix. But this wasn’t the case. I was either too small scale or just sounding like an idiot but I kind of got the feeling I was speaking Chinese.
First of all I couldn’t find seed meal and agricultural lime and the rest of the ingredients were packed in small bags, designed for the home gardener who just wants to liven up a rose bush. Either that or for them money is no object. I finally ended up ordering from this place located about 300 miles from me and paying a hefty shipping cost. I’m sure the products were top of the line though. They made me feel weird about using cottonseed meal saying it was for more acidic loving plants like blueberries. They recommended I use Alfalfa Meal instead and that’s what I’ve been using for the last 3 years.
Lime was another matter. No one had heard of agricultural lime so I used dolomite lime and gypsum instead. These, I was able to purchase at a nearby Southern States dealer.
Once I had all the ingredients, making the fertilizer was easy and kind of fun. I just used about a quart sized plastic container to measure each ingredient, mixed it all up with a shovel in a wheelbarrow and dumped the mixture into 5 gallon buckets with lids. This all cost me about $150.00 but would have been much less without the shipping cost and after 3 years I’ve only had to replenish the dolomite lime and alfalfa meal.
I did manage to get my soil tested last Fall and found I needed to add most everything except magnesium which means I’ll go a much lighter (if at all) on the dolomite lime next year. The test showed a very low level of phosphorus so I added bone meal this year although probably not nearly enough.
Actually while writing this, I’m realizing I really need to make some adjustments next year especially with my limes. Apparently I’ve been snoozing and should be using “calcitic limestone” which is probably what Solomon refers to as “agricultural lime”. I will also be adding cottonseed meal to my garden next year because after doing some research it appears to be fine to add to the vegetable garden.
Anyhow, for first time gardeners, Solomon’s recipe is great because once you find the ingredients, it’s pretty straight forward, works in improving soil and if measured and applied properly, relatively safe for the environment. As Solomon says, once you get going with his formula it’s a good idea to get your soil tested and go from there.
So what’s the life lesson of all this? My Mom says it’s much easier to go through life not understanding. She says it’s good to not ask questions, accept that life is a mystery and leave it at that. My Dad is the opposite. He questions everything. I mean everything.
But if we just start following recipes without understanding the ingredients or how and why they are being mixed together, we may end up with a surprise. Obviously, we can’t learn or understand everything, and some surprises can be good but in the case of growing food, they usually aren’t welcomed and sometimes, can lead to disaster.
A big part of growing nutritious food in a sustainable way is understanding how things grow and how they are part of a ecosystem. Adding fertilizer can help but growing food involves many different parts all working together to form a healthy plant. It starts with the soil. Good soil means a strong plant that will be better equipped to survive drought, wind, heavy rain, disease and pests. When mature, it will be nutritious food. No surprises needed.
I am currently trying to wade through a dry but also interesting book about the connection between soil fertility and animal health. The book titled, not surprisingly, Soil Fertility and Animal Health, was written in 1958 by Dr. William A. Albrecht and recommended by Steve Solomon as one of the most important books ever written about agriculture. I’ll try and sum up what I’ve read so far. If I’m wrong please correct me.
Albrecht keeps repeating the phrase, “all flesh is grass”, a term he got from an anonymous “christian scholar” who had a theory that “the soil, by growing the crops, can serve in creating animals and man”. Soil, it seems is a primary basis of life and the soil most suited for growing food that feeds animals lies in a thin band right through the middle the U.S. along the 98th meridian of longitude.
This is due to a variety of reasons but mainly climate. The big factor he mentions is rainfall. Too much rain will leach minerals out of the soil, the case in the East where I live, and too little rain will not enable rocks to break down and make soil, the case in the West (excluding the coast). But this band in the middle seems to have just the right climate to produce excellent soil conditions for growing nutritious grass that produces healthy livestock. It’s also the best soil for growing grains, corn and most likely vegetables?
If interested in downloading a pdf version of this book go to the soil and health library and (after reading and agreeing with the library rules) click “Take me to the library”. The book will be third down on the list.
To see a map of the 98th meridian click here and scroll down.
Information about soil fertility and a good map of global soil fertility from Wikipedia.
Click here for a video by Steve Solomon talking about compost and soil fertility.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” – Sherlock Holmes Quote – A Study in Scarlet
A few things about my garden
USDA Hardiness Zone: 7a (This means the minimum temperature is between 0 – 5 F)
Province: Piedmont Plateau bordering the Coastal Plain known as the Fall Zone
The Coastal Plain Province is underlain by a wedge of unconsolidated sediments including gravel, sand, silt, and clay, which overlaps the rocks of the eastern Piedmont along an irregular line of contact known as the Fall Zone. Eastward, this wedge of sediments thickens to more than 8,000 feet at the Atlantic coast line. Beyond this line is the Atlantic Continental Shelf Province, the submerged continuation of the Coastal Plain, which extends eastward for at least another 75 miles where the sediments attain a maximum thickness of about 40,000 feet.- Excerpt from Maryland Geological Survey
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed – This is the main area of drainage into the Chesapeake Bay. My garden is a part of it.