Saturday, 6 October 2012

Building soil and saving the earth

A friend of ours once said that Permaculture is really all about building soil and saving the earth. In a very simple way this is really what it all comes down to. Soil is the basis of our existence. It is of the utmost importance that the soil that we rely on is kept intact and healthy. Soil is much more than just dirt. It is its own cosmos, made up from nutrients like calcium and potassium, salts and organic compounds as well as lifeforms such as bacteria, nematodes, little beetles, worms etc. etc. All these components together make healthy soil. And healthy soil grows plants and therefore food in abundance. This food in return nourishes us and we can then convert the energy into whatever we like, say building a house. Therefore the soil in the end builds the house. This is how important soil is. Without soil there would be nothing on this planet but rock. 

In light of this revelation we decided to built a big compost heap in our garden to make good fertilizer for our plants in the coming year. This has also given us a good way of using up those old and brown tomato plants that the latest frost claimed as its victims and all the other stuff that needs to go at this time of the year. 

The compost heap that we decided to build will not need any turning during the decomposition process. It was built in shape of a tarsus which is a type of donut shape, a large ring with a hole in the middle to allow for air circulation. This is a special way to build compost heaps to optimise the composting process.

First of a base has to be built. This base is made from sticks and branches. It will allow air circulation and keep the heap itself off the ground. 


Next off, we added a layer of bullrushes. Actually this should be straw, but we couldn't find anyone close to us that had some fresh straw. Most farmers in our region concentrate on livestock and hay. Essentially the straw is used to add carbon and in this layer also to prevent the composting material from falling through the sticks. 

Note: There is a difference between hay and straw. Hay is from green grass that is dried in the sun and is quite nutritious for livestock. Straw is the woody stalk of crops like wheat and barley and is low in nitrogen but high in carbon. This is why straw is used so often for composts and sheet mulches as a brown layer. 


This layer still covers all of the base, but starts to shape the ring form by being applied thicker around the outside. A bit of manure is spread on the outside of the straw/rushes layer. We used chicken manure. Chicken manure is really high in nitrogen and therefore we did not apply much of it. Mixed under the straw it is hardly visible but will help to kickstart the decomposition process really fast. Add a bit of straw on top.

On top of the straw manure layer we can now add our first "compost layer". This is comprised out of what the average person would consider compost material. Your kitchen scraps or in our case old tomato plants. Really you are looking for plant material with a higher content in nitrogen. 


Again this layer is applied in a ring form and the donut shape is slowly building up.

On top of this layer we place another layer of straw/rushes. 

You can see the donut emerging now. Keep working on the shape and even out the sides. Then it is time to add some old, already finished compost. This adds  special micro-organisms and innoculates the compost heap.  Then put some straw over it again. Now it is time to water the heap. LOTS of water. Don't worry about making it too wet at this stage. Excess water will drain out throuigh the bottom. Later during the actual composting it is better not to add water and tarp the heap when significant rainfall is expected. 


Then  keep layering more manure, straw, green stuff, straw. It is good to add a layer of woodchips or leaflitter to introduce some fungi mycelium and also as a carbon source. A good compost has a balanced carbon to nitrogen ratio. However, we have seen ratios from 25:1 to 40:1 referenced and don't think that it has to be absolutely exact. Although I am sure that some people insist on an exact ratio. There are real compost fanatics out there. In our compost heap this time we added some old wood chips from where we cut our firewood earlier this year. We also added some charcoal that initially was meant for our BBQ, but which had gotten wet during a rainstorm. This is an experiment and we will see how it works. 

Keep layering and layering, alternating the layers between straw and manure, straw and green, and so on. Keep watering as you go. When the last layer is put on and before the last cap of straw goes on we added some rich soil from the bottom of a tree in the woods. Where the soil is nice and soft and loose under the tree where many years of decomposing leafs and tree needles are lying around there are a myriad of micro organisms that are trained like a special ops commando on breaking organic matter down. We sprinkled it over the last layer again as an innoculant. Whenever we take anything from the woods we make sure to say a short Thank You to the trees and animals of the forest. It is all too easy to forget that they're the ones doing all the work and in order to make sure that the whole system keeps going we should only take what we need and when we forget is when we start to exploit the environment and start to inflict damage.

When the last layer of straw is put on we cover everything and make sure that everything looks nice. Not everybody has the luxury to build their compost out of sight and it should have an esthetic look about it. Water one last time and voila....your compost is done. Now in the spring you will have a very good fertilzer for your beds and trees. 



Oh there is one more thing I wanted to mention. Don't worry about weeds in your compost. Throw them in. It doesn't matter. (Well, not burdock roots, though the leaves are fine. Eat the roots. :D) The heat inside the heap will destroy the seeds anyway and this way you won't lose the minerals that the weeds extracted from your ground.  

On another side note I would like to mention Biodynamic preparations. Biodynamics is a fascinating concept that we only got introduced to recently. Although sounding very esoteric at first glance, the results can't be disputed. In Biodynamics six different preparations can be used to help the composting process. Those preparations are made out of plants that are specially processed. The plants important for composting are yarrow (adding Potassium and Sulfur), Chamomille (for Calcium and Nitrogen), Nettle (Iron and Magnesium), Oak Bark (Calcium),  Dandellion (Silica), Valerian. Should you be using those preparations, use a metal staff to puncture six deep holes into the compost ring from the top and evenly spaced. Then add the preparations as per instructions. A good place to start getting information about Biodynamics is the book "Grasp the Nettle" by Peter Procter. We personally are not experts on this topic and before we get things wrong we would rather like to point towards other sources in this respect. 





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