Building Life with Soil: Compost 101

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“They’re making more people every day, but they ain’t makin’ any more dirt.”
~Will Rogers*

Years ago my uncle gave me a book called: How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, written by a man named John Jeavons.  Jeavons created a technique called GROW BIOINTENSIVE®, which is essentially a collection of agricultural methods to make raising food on mini-farms and gardens more efficient.  From his book I learned for the first time about the important role of the exposed layer of the Earth’s soil that we walk upon every day.

“Soil is the fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth”.  Comprised of a complex ecosystem of microbes, topsoil is among humankind’s most precious resources.(1)  I found this fascinating because, while it now seems obvious how critical soil is after reading the book, I had honestly never once really stopped to consider dirt much before.

And I certainly never considered the natural magic that went into the Earth’s renewable processes of turning trash to nutrient dense black soil via an intricate web of life systems.

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“To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” ~Ghandi

But alas, in the same way so many environmental themed plots thicken, humans got involved and trashed the Earth’s ability to naturally repair. With mass-scale, conventional farming focused on single crop harvesting, tilling and manipulating the environment to benefit wallets and maximize profits, topsoil began to deplete at an alarming rate.

Single crop harvesting, which is often used for coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean and wheat, increases soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself.  The creation of healthy topsoil requires variety, and growing single crops (rather than rotating crop types) doesn’t just prevent the addition of valuable nutrients to the soil, but also accelerates their depletion. Overplanting the same thing year after year makes the soil unable to support future crops of any kind – yet this is the primary agricultural model in our country at this time. (2)

Specifically, Jeavons explains, our conventional agricultural practices in the U.S. deplete surface soil 18 to 80 times faster than nature can build it, and current agricultural practices destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. (3)

According to the World Wildlife Fund, erosion issues go beyond just the loss of fertile land (which is a plenty big enough deal on its own). It’s also led to increased pollution and sediment in streams and rivers, clogging waterways, causing problems for aquatic life, and creating ripple effects throughout the food chain.  Additionally, eroded lands are less able to hold onto water (requiring 33% more water compared to more sustainable healthy-soil practices) which inevitably worsens the effects of flooding. (4)

So why should we care?
With current agricultural practices being the opposite of sustainable when it comes to feeding life on this planet, worldwide only 33 to 49 years’ worth of farmable soil remains.(5) Sadly, our children and grandchildren (and those of us who make it alongside them) will certainly have no choice but to care in years ahead, because the ability to produce food to feed our species will be impaired.

Indeed, literally half of all of the topsoil on our planet has been lost in the last 150 years due to destructive farming practices. (6)

But let’s get back to our own backyards.

What can we do? 
I always like to focus on the microcosms inside my own world when it comes to answering the calls of overwhelming macro-problems that extend far and wide.

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Adopting sustainable soil practices can help reduce the impacts of agriculture practices with crops and livestock, preventing soil degradation, erosion and the eventual downslide of conventionally farmed land into barren desert land. (7)

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Developing healthy topsoil in our yards and gardens may seem like a drop in the bucket toward solving our species’ problems, but the way I see it, my yard offers one drop more in the right direction.  And while I may not personally see the world change in the right direction, I get to sleep at night knowing I’m doing what I can to aid generations who will follow, and I appreciate knowing that my efforts are highly significant to the rows in my little garden to the food my family consumes daily and shares within our community.

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“We are each responsible for the footprints we are leaving upon this planet in our lifetimes.  “We “farm” as we eat. If we consume food that has been grown using methods that inadvertently deplete the soil in the growing process, we are responsible for depleting the soil. It is how we are “farming.” If, instead, we raise or request food grown in ways that heal the Earth, then we are healing the Earth and its soils. Our daily food choices make the difference. We can choose to sustain ourselves while increasing the planet’s vitality.  In the process, we preserve resources, breathe cleaner air, enjoy good exercise, and eat pure food.” ~ John Jeavons*

And just imagine, if everyone developed quality soil in their own yards, it would add up to powerful worldwide change.  Many (like Jeavons) believe sustainable mini-farming will be an important part of the solution toward issues of starvation and malnutrition, dwindling energy supplies, unemployment, and exhaustion and loss of arable land that will inevitably arise in the years ahead if trends continue. (8)

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“Population will increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ‘ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.”- Abraham Lincoln*

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So, in the spirit of taking action, right now on our yardstead, we’ve begun the wonderful process of creating the most healthy soil possible for our garden, and part of that process includes cultivating compost.

“According to the EPA, yard trimmings and food scraps make up 27% of the waste that is sent to landfills. In 2010, 58% of yard waste was composted, but in contrast only 3% of food waste was recovered for composting. Compost improves soil structure, controls erosion, prevents pollution and extends the life of landfills.” (9)

We are fortunate to be mentored in our current pursuits by Lettuce, an Austin-based company that creates zero-waste chef-designed meal kits from local organic gardens, and also helps individuals develop their own urban homesteads.  When our current generation of veggies and herbs reach maturation, we will sell a portion of our harvests to Lettuce.  Thus, a beautiful symbiotic partnership has begun!

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Hal, our mentor and co-founder of Lettuce, brought us five untreated (meaning not painted or sprayed with other chemicals that can leach in the soil) wooden pallets.  He used them to create three compost cubbies that will organize our three stages of soil development: Cooking, Adding and Done.

Based on Hal’s advice, we started contributing organic matter toward cultivating the beginnings of our future nutrient dense topsoil replacement source, which will not only keep buckets of organic produce trimmings we consume weekly out of city dumps, but also provides a useful purpose for our chicken coop hay bedding and manure.  All of these elements added to yard clippings, existing earth and water will ultimately will help us replace topsoil and nutrients lost in our garden rows in the months and years ahead.

We began with a lovely sludge of vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells we collected this week.

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In order to properly balance our compost with the right ratio of Nitrogen (food scraps) and Carbon (plant trimmings, leaves, ash, etc), we are combining 1 part food scraps from our kitchen with every 3 parts of leaves, chicken coop bedding (hay) and other plant matter from our yard.

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Next we have to water it daily because apparently even decomposing matter needs water and moisture to really do its thing.  Then, as this little dirt pile heats over time in the sun, being turned daily, and ultimately resting and cooling, we will begin a new cubby of compost to begin cooking next to it, and a third cubby after that with the youngest stack of compost.

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Once the soil has been watered, heated and turned for about a month or two we will use the resulting soil mix to add nutrients to existing earth and replace eroded topsoil on our garden rows, which will hopefully allow us to maximize our yield and ensure our harvests are as nutrient dense as possible.

Do you compost at your home?

For years I wanted to, and even attempted it with one of those compost box kits, but I never felt 100% confident getting started or maintaining it, and I worried about things like smells and how to keep out rodents.  Having a mentor has really allowed me to jump in, experiment more fearlessly and to trouble shoot on the front end of the process.

So my recommendation: find someone in your community – think neighbor, garden center staff member or local group pages on social media – already doing this and ask them to help you.  (Or just message me and let’s compare beginner notes!)

Sending love from my yardstead to yours.

Growing-Plants.jpg*Quotes sourced from How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine
by John Jeavons

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“The garden is a concrete connection to life and death.  You could even say there is a religion of garden, for it teaches profound psychological and spiritual lessons.  Whatever can happen to a garden can happen to a soul and psyche – too much water, too little water, infestations, heat, storm, flood, invasion, miracles, dying back, coming back, boon, healing, blossoming, bounty, beauty.”
– Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Hi Katie,
    What a wonderful and informative post! We have composted for years and although we often have a rodent or two nearby we have a cat who keeps the population under control. I miss having chickens to add their bedding to the mix… I am so inspired by your garden/yardstead and how you are using it with your children! Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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