When my buddy Shapour and I teamed up to sell at the local farmer's market in Georgia, we were often asked,
"So what kind of stuff do you guys grow?"
The answer, every time, was soil.
Today I'll spare you the ramble and simply say that Soil is where it's at, and divulge how we co-create it here at Taproot.
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A Few Tips:
The smaller your composting material is, the more surface area there is for the microbes to do their thing, the faster your organic matter becomes rich humus. A shredder is an incredible tool to have on hand, but short of that, running it over with a lawn mower is effective if somewhat messy, or try my preferred method: hacking stuff up with a machete as the pile gets built.
Building the Pile
- Loosely cover the bottom of the bin with about 6 inches of twigs, straw, woodchips, &/or leaves (C). I always like to start with twigs if they're available because I think it allows more air penetration from the bottom of the pile.
- Add 2-4 inches of veggie scraps, crop residue, weeds, etc. (N)
- Top with another 4-6 inches of straw, woodchips, or leaves (C)
- Sprinkle a 1-2 inch layer of compost booster on top (with a working system this can be materials sifted out of the finished compost; a few handfuls of healthy garden soil; chopped comfrey and yarrow; or urine, beer, or coca-cola in a pinch)
- If chopping materials while building, do so now.
- Soak the materials.
- 4-6 inches N
- 6-8 inches C
- Sprinkle any mineral amendments you might need in your garden (rock dust, wood ash)
- Soak & Chop
- Continue layering in this fashion, watering each successive layer, until your pile is a little taller than the bin it's built in, making sure to top the pile with a nice thick layer of C
- Cover the pile. Not everyone does this, but it really helps maintain the appropriate moisture level and prevents nutrients leeching during rain events.
Turning is relatively simple and pretty fascinating: most of the action is taking place in the heart of the pile so when you flip it from the first bin into the second, you want to try to get everything that was on the edges into the center, and the more decomposed materials from the center out to the edge. It's this flipping action that keeps everything decomposing at nearly the same rate, while simultaneously reintroducing oxygen -- literally breathing more life into the process.
In the bin #2 the pile will heat up again, but often it doesn't get quite as hot and sometimes takes a little longer (I'm pleased when it hits 130-140*, ecstatic at 150*). (Meanwhile, if the materials are readily available, build another pile in bin #1.) When the temperature again begins to drop and the pile has visibly shrunk (about a week), flip the contents of bin #2 into bin #3.
By the time it's made it to bin #3, most of the materials should be unrecognizable. Straw, leaves and twigs should be the only remnants. At this stage, things cool off, steadily cooking around 100-120*F. Various invertebrates, many so tiny as to be invisible, will join the party and start shredding the remnants. After a week of cooling down, it's usually ready to sift.
At this point, experts differ in how long you should let your compost age before using it in the garden. Some sources say 6 months to a year, others say a few weeks or months is sufficient.
Here's the thing: if you're planning on mixing your compost into a potting mix or tilling it in to the soil, you'd do well to let it set a spell (in a covered container of course). Our eyes can only perceive so much, and there's still a lot of decomposition happening as the organic matter stabilizes into humus. If you mixed this "fresh" compost directly in, the result could be a temporary nitrogen tie-up or burning your plants.
Here on the farm though, we build the soil from the top down, same as Nature does albeit in a slightly sped-up manner.
We use this "fresh" compost as a top-dressing -- a manufactured O Horizon if you will -- where the humification process occurs where soil and amendment meet. Leaving the soil strata intact allows the vast multitude of creatures in the Earth a safe space in which to grow and proliferate, like an underground microcosm of Taproot Farm. It's these billions of lifeforms and the connections between them that enable our continued existence, and around here gratitude is often expressed with gifts of food. So we feed our microbes, which in turn feed our plants, which in turn feed us... and so on... and so on....
Happy composting, y'all. Hope this helps.
Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis. An excellent primer on the soil food web with instructions on creating different types of compost and compost teas.
Cornell Composting: The Science and Engineering of Compost, A more technical website, but extremely interesting to learn about specific parts of the process.