Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nutrient-dense Natural Soil Production Methods and Materials

So, we eat dirt, right? What says we should not produce that mouthful of dirt just the way WE decide, with the ingredients WE choose, and for the specific use(s) WE need?


OK. Got your pencil and paper, or a computer to record this for notes on YOUR available materials and method(s) YOU decide for YOUR own soil production>

First off, let me be certain it is clearly understood here that this is FUN! Hard work, but, so enjoyable since the nutrient-dense garden soil YOU produce will amaze you and make you wonder why you waited so long to make it!

The hard part is also the easy part. Producing the amount of soil your garden needs may be limited by the amount of space for soil production you have, and the quantity of raw plant material available within reason for your ability to acquire and transport. Also, plenty of water is required, so if that is a factor where you live, it will determine the amount of soil you can produce for a given pile build.

Now, where shall we go next in this tutorial? How about a list of what is necessary to get, to do, and to be aware of?

1. The place to build the pile of raw plant material

On a farm, "where" can be just about anywhere there is a vacant space. In an apartment, "where" is an issue! But, still very doable! The apartment compost pile can be in the bottom half of a planter with plants in the top half. Or, in a separate pot, or any container with plenty of air ventilation and water catchment below. Plants debris naturally composts as it falls to the ground under the plants and water plus flora and fauna digest the woody and soft parts down to their elemental state. Plant roots seek out this nutrition, and over time this process increases the nutrient content of the soil.

Nutrients come from two sources; minerals in the native soil; nutrients in the air, Plants absorb nutrients from both sources, and the decaying plant debris puts both into the soil, although some nutrients are lost to vaporization, such as part of the nitrogen that gases off back into the air.

Our soil production is focused on accumulating raw plant debris that is about 4 times the amount of soil we will produce. In the apartment our space is so limited that collecting this amount will require a 5 gallon bucket up to a small 30 gallon barrel for a quite large amount of soil production inside.

The space we choose needs to include room for the raw material to have its own separate space. This is so we can build the pile with layers of each type of raw material. This will make sense later in the pile building section.

Outside, we still need a separate space for collecting the raw materials. This naturally is better next to the place the pile is built so to save on transport effort. 

Quite a lot of water is used. The pile placement needs to account for runoff of part of this water, or better, collecting it off to the side of the pile. To keep the pile sweet smelling with an earthy odor, plenty of air ventilation at the bottom is needed. The pile build section details this requirement.

Finally, harvesting the finished pile requires its own space, or the finished soil is transported as needed to grow beds.

2. The material available

Raw plant debris is everywhere! Really!

Two years ago for two months I collected all the waste paper, cardboard and kitchen scraps my 9 apartment neighbors threw away and put it in my compost pile. It produced a small mountain of soil!

For a lady I completely renovated her beach front Summer cottage property on Whidbey Island's Snakelum Point Spit, I gathered debris along the private drive roadside from Douglas Firs and maples. The neighbor kids' ski boats tore up lots of sea weed that washed ashore and I collected with Horse Barn fork and wheel barrow to a compost pile. Her place in Seattle had over grown Mt. Vernon Laurel I trimmed and hauled up to Whidbey Island for her compost pile. I even put an engine oil draining in one pile to see if the heat and enzymes would reduce that organic material to basic elements. It did!

Back in Pennsylvania 40+ years ago my first experience producing natural soil was when I hauled cardboard waste to our little acre rural property and earth worms chewed lots of it into fertile soil!

In fact, then glue used for corrugated cardboard is one of the best earth worm foods!

Power line clearing crews produce tons of wood chips a day. They have few places to dump this great natural debris, so find a local crew and offer your garden or alley or even front yard for a truck load. Be sure you have the large space! Most clearing crew chip trucks hold 10, 12, and even 15 cubic yards! That's a lot.

Other raw material resources are rural and town vacant lots - mow the weeds, trim the trees, gather abandoned grass clippings, brush, rotted tree parts, ant hills, any plant matter. Of course, leave plenty of plant debris for healthy plants on the property!

Horse stables produce unwanted manure and bedding. Chicken farms, ditto, Dairies, both goat and cow, sheep herders, llama farmers, rabbit raisers, barber shops - Barber shops? Yep - hair makes for awesome soil!, grocery store vegetable waste, liquor store boxes, local warehouse carton waste, food packing plant waste, fruit and nut orchard waste, canneries' waste, fish market waste, roadside farmer stand spoiled produce, old rotted hay, straw from grain farms, rotting grains, corn stalks, grape vineyard pruning, kiwi and orchard tree trimming, melon farm waste, melon packing plant waste, and any place where plant material and sea fish is processed, raised, and packed.

One caution. Farmers use pesticides and herbicides, So do many private home owners and apartment managers, Today's restrictions on pesticide ingredients make them less hazardous, but still my advice is be sure to keep the material you collect nearly or completely free of chemicals. Plus, if at all possible for you, make your compost pile with materials that will cause it to heat over 140 degrees F. This helps reduce herbicides and pesticides to relative harmless elements.

Not all farmers use chemicals, but even so-called organic foods are allowed to be treated with unhealthy chemicals. Just beware.

I find that material gathered from vacant lots and fields that are still wild is a good bet for chemical-free material. You know these are chemical free when dandelion and wild grasses and flowers are growing there.

3. The design of the pile and Construction

Pile building is part science, part art. The science is in the design. The art is creating the pile with the material you found. 

The design follows the natural laws of heat, gas, water, gravity, weight, mass, fluid flow, and your preferred handling method. 

The heat part is how you construct the pile with two main types of raw material. The one key material to produce heat is fresh or rotted and wet lawn clipping grass. It is high in nitrogen, Nitrogen combines with high carbon content material to create heat, The ratio of green grass to carbon material is around 1 part grass to 3 parts dry plant material. refined nitrogen also works. Its ration is based on dry weight of around 30 parts carbon material to 1 part refined nitrogen. The least costly refined nitrogen is urea, at 46% nitrogen content. Figure a ration of 2 pounds of urea to 30 pounds dry raw plant dry material.

The gas part of design considers that the decay process produces one of two families of gas; and for piles with partial air flow blocking, both families of gas are produced. The family of gases we want is created by adequate air flow to provide air to every part of the pile. This is pretty simple, just a matter of watching our pile build process closely.

The gas family we don't want smells awful! It requires no air, as the bacteria that live in it produce their own oxygen, plus foul odor sulfur gases. It's the common sewer gas family.

This gas-related design also defines the maximum practical width of the pile. The widest it can go to allow good air flow into the center is 5 feet. The weight of the pile with saturating water also limits the height to about 5 to six feet, depending on the amount of short cut brush layered into the build. The weight concentrates the bottom of the pile blocking air flow.

More about the short cut brush in a bit.

Water is critical to hot composting. The raw materials need to be saturated with water to allow the bacteria and enzymes' actions. With dry materials it is critical to saturate the materials. My preferred water method is to build the pile dry about half way, get on top and compact the material all I can with my feet, then saturate this. Then add the top, compact it and water. More on this.

 Gravity comes to play since over the decomposition the pile collapses. Not too much odd. Just a note so you're aware.

Weight is a factor to contend with. This stuff is heavy! When the pile is ready to harvest, it's wet. Be prepared to lift some real dirt!

The mass of the pile stays the same; it's the compaction of the material as it is reduced to elemental form that makes it appear to get less mass.

By fluid flow I refer to both the air and water flow in the finished pile. Heat will make the air rise, and evaporate part of the water, maybe all of it if the temperature gets high enough, and water you add as the pile matures and dries from heat and air needs replacing. Make sure the pile construction allows both air and water flow to every part of the pile.

Finally, here's the very first vital part of creating this pile! First lay a four to six inch layer of small diameter sticks and branches on the ground the pile is to be build on. This assures adequate air flow and water drain out. Without this the pile may go anaerobic and stink.

Then as you build layers of grass and carbon, or "brown" material, add a few inches brush layer between the grass layer on top of the carbon layer. It goes; Brush on bottom; Carbon layer - about 5 inches; grass layer - one to two inches; brush layer - about 2=3 inches; carbon = about 5 inches; grass, and so on.

Now, the top.

Leaving the top just a layer of grass allows vital nitrogen to gas off. To limit this and keep the top material wet, cover the pile top and sides - keep the sides straight up as possible - with sand, garden dirt, other compost, or most fine material. Don't use sawdust, as the wood will absorb nitrogen from the pile.

My practice is to soak this top layer of fine material as the last step.

5. Watering the pile

The heat and air flow will evaporate the water. To monitor my pile I use a steel rod about four feet long to penetrate to the center of the pile. It is called "pencil rod." Concrete wall contractors use it for retaining wall forms. It comes in twenty foot pieces. The diameter is 5/16ths Inch. I form garden stakes with various lengths, so I have hundreds!

The stakes left in the pile take on the heat and as mine are well rusted, hold enough water when pulled out and hot to tell where sections of the pile are getting dry. The temperature is simple to check with my hand, if it's too hot to hold, it's likely over 140F. I like for this temp to hold for two weeks.

6. Monitoring decomposition process

I watch two things to indicate decay progress. One is the pile compaction. The top falls at least 1/3rd the original, stepped-down height. The heat resides to barely warm to cold, and the water saturates the pile. This point can be further checked with pulling the outside away to see how the inner material looks. The decay is complete when the raw material appears completely saturated with water and still has the original appearance of the plant part. It readily crumbles into fine powder.

7. Tools

I use two tools for pile construction. One is a hand pruner to cut small branch material for the bottom and layering for air and water flow. The other is a 10 tine horse stall fork. It's tines are close together which makes it much easier to pick up the fine particle soil produced. It also holds larger amounts of material which means the work is done sooner. But, it is a bit heavy. 

8. Finished soil "harvesting"

The cut brush is not decayed. I use the horse stall fork to filter it out. I plan to build a trammel - a slightly tilted horizontal, round rotating screen - to filter out larger material much faster. The finished soil is piled or goes into grow beds.

9. How to store finished soil

It can be dried and stored indefinitely, left wet and covered to prevent weed seed falling into it, or used as a ground cover. Bag it. Barrel or bucket it. Give it away!

10. How to use this nutrient-dense soil for healthy plant growth

It's ready to grow plants directly in it! My garden soil is composed of 100% soil produced this way, and my plants are some healthy and bug free plants!

Some people come buy small quantities and rave to everyone how fertile it is with their plants. I've produced it this way for community gardeners. I've had Master Gardeners be amazed at it; and I'm always satisfied with how well this soil produces healthy, disease and bug-free plants.

11. The cycle

It's a wonderful self-sustaining cycle! The plants and sources of plant material all around all year long supply amazing quantity of raw material. The grow season close has much more plant material produced by this soil than store bought soil or native soil, and this soil lasts for years. In pots I use it for permanent in and outdoor plant. I created a really nice flower bed for a neighboring auto business. The owner is always remarking how well the plants grow.

I made a rock garden and a slightly raised sedum display for him. The perennial sedum blooms all Summer and withstands Summer drought well. The soil retains water for weeks.

In the final analysis, this natural soil contains the key essential nutrients plants and we people and our animals require for disease-free life.

This guide for creating the pile of raw organic material is incomplete without a section about the various materials themselves.

Corrugated cardboard, cardboard, paper and other plant materials that are used to make natural fiber products, including wood fiber egg cartons, wood fiber shipping container forms and packing materials, corn starch "popcorn," and any other plant fiber product can generally be used in a hot compost pile. The ratio of nitrogen to dry weight "brown," or dry carbon plant material stays the same. Just be sure you reduce the size of large pieces to 6 - 10 inch pieces to allow water and air to freely pass through the pile. Remember also that a layer of torn paper, or any other wood fiber product will make a very solid, water and air impermeable layer, so scatter these materials loosely and add lots of rougher material to maintain the vital water-air passing pile texture.

Seaweed makes great soil! It is loaded with most key nutrients people, animals and plants require for health. The salt in seaweed is minimal for plant damage when mixed with other raw materials.

Here's one ingredient I find most compost producers are not aware of! But, for some of our garden plants, it's particularly necessary!

Sod. Sod? Yep, sod. Preferably from lawn scalping, flower bed refurbishing, old soggy roadside ditch cleaning, driveway edge cleanup where soil crept over from the woods the drive winds through, roadside soil, leaves and twigs from a quiet rural road through a woods, and even just good, native sand.

For most piles I create, there is a ready supply of sandy, silty and/or native fine soil that old lawn turf comes with, or someone cleaned the old flower beds and family driveway.

Sometimes it's just discarded sand. But, the target use of the soil determines the amount of heavier raw material to add.

Kitchen scraps including small chunks of meat can be composted IF the pile reaches 140 degrees F and higher for several days and slowly cools over at least a week.

Table scraps require 140 degree pile heat, like meat.

All vegetables compost very easily with and without heat.

Garden waste composts the same as vegetable material.

Oils that are rancid need to be diffused thinly into the pile without concentrating any areas.

Fruit, nuts, nut shells, rotting wood, tree trunks, weeds from mowed fields, wood chips, bark chips, woody leaves and stems from trimmed hedges, sewer plant sludge, hay and straw, all these need breakdown to smallish size. Keep the ration of nitrogen to carbon the same 1:30, or using grass clippings, 1/3 grass to 3 parts dry and woody material.

For all very dry materials, make certain to thoroughly soak them all the way through.

On dry, "Brown" materials, a word about leaves. Go look at a tree, shrub, bush, and large and small plants growing in all the soil environments near your garden. What do you see about the nutrient contents the leaves have?

Right! The soil determines the leaf content.  Now, go back to trees.  Where are the ones you can find growing? What species trees? What would you expect the nutrient makeup to be for each species?

Let's check on the leaf nutrient source. Yes, tree species do grow in specific environment suited to each. But, what About the root of each species? Let's check some of these "Root Wads."(Term loggers use about the mass of twisted together, gnarly roots:-))

How deep do Douglas Fir roots go?(I live in the Pacific Northwest with Doug Fir everywhere!)

How deep the common locust?(We have one happily growing beside a far taller Doug Fir in the front lawn)

OK, The unique environment I live in has one of very few prairies up here supporting native stands of majestic White Oak, growing in the glacial till that defines much of the Puget Sound. How deep do oak roots grow?

That said, can you see how the soil where your natural soil compost pile makes contribution to the nutrients your soil will have?

One interesting note about locust roots. I've seen then growing out a hundred feet just under the surface in lawns! We also have native stands of Madone(Madrona) trees. They also have deep tap roots. Their wood, thick leaves produce exceptionally long-lasting soil.

Let's add a word of adding soil nutrients from commercial sources. Here, in the glacial till we have, these is inadequate calcium and iron as the source of the till contained little or none. In other micro-locations, various amount of both iron and calcium are in the glacial till. Some have nasty levels of arsenic, even!

By all means, add missing nutrients, especially minerals.

Hot compost piles can be built in very cold weather and still heat inside. However, the outside of the pile will need insulation and rain, snow and sleet shielding to allow the heat out to the edges.

This cycle of producing waste plant material, gathering and then assembling compost piles is daily. As you'd imagine, it picks up speed and volume during growing season.

1. The place to build the pile of raw plant material

2. The material available

3. The design of the pile

4. The pile construction

5. Watering the pile

6. Monitoring decomposition process

7. Tools

8. Finished soil "harvesting"

9. How to store finished soil

10. How to use this nutrient-dense soil for healthy plant growth

11. The cycle

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