2009 - [Sustainable Concepts] Composting Fundamentals and Straw
2009, vol. 76
Welcome to the July 2009 newsletter from Design Forward.
Please take some time to enjoy this month's features.
Quote of the Month: "Living in the midst of abundance
we have the greatest difficulty in seeing that the supply
of natural wealth is limited and that the constant increase
of population is destined to reduce the American standard
of living unless we deal more sanely with our resources."
Lisa A. Swan
Good composting is a matter of providing the proper
environmental conditions for microbial life. Compost
is made by billions of microbes (fungi, bacteria,
etc.) that digest the yard and kitchen wastes (food)
you provide for them. If the pile is cool enough,
worms, insects, and their relatives will help out
the microbes. All of these will slowly make compost
out of your yard and kitchen wastes under any conditions.
However, like people, these living things need air,
water, and food. If you maintain your pile to provide
for their needs, they'll happily turn your yard
and kitchen wastes into compost much more quickly.
Keep in mind the following basic ideas while building
your compost piles:
Composting microbes are aerobic -- they can't do
their work well unless they are provided with air.
Without air, anaerobic (non-air needing) microbes
take over the pile. They do cause slow decomposition,
but tend to smell like putrefying garbage! For this
reason, it's important to make sure that there are
plenty of air passageways into your compost pile.
Some compost ingredients, such as green grass clippings
or wet leaves, mat down very easily into slimy layers
that air cannot get through. Other ingredients,
such as straw, don't mat down easily and are very
helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile.
To make sure that you have adequate aeration for
your pile and its microbes, thoroughly break up
or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and
exclude air. You can also turn the pile to get air
into it, which means completely breaking it apart
with a spade or garden fork and then piling it back
together in a more 'fluffed-up' condition.
Ideally, your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out
sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. At
this moisture level, there is a thin film of water
coating every particle in the pile, making it very
easy for microbes to live and disperse themselves
throughout the pile. If your pile is drier than
this, it won't be very good microbial habitat, and
composting will be slowed significantly. If your
pile is a great deal wetter, the sodden ingredients
will be so heavy that they will tend to mat down
and exclude air from the pile, again slowing the
composting process (and perhaps creating anaerobic
odor problems). If you are using dry ingredients,
such as autumn leaves or straw, you'll need to moisten
them as you add them to the pile. Kitchen fruit
and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture,
as do fresh green grass clippings and garden thinnings.
Watch out for far-too-soggy piles in wet climates
(a tarp may help to keep rain off during wet weather).
In dry climates, it may be necessary to water your
pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture.
In broad terms, there are two major kinds of food
that composting microbes need.
'Browns' are dry and dead plant materials such as
straw, dry brown weeds, autumn leaves, and wood
chips or sawdust. These materials are mostly made
of chemicals that are just long chains of sugar
molecules linked together. As such, these items
are a source of energy for the compost microbes.
Because they tend to be dry, browns often need to
be moistened before they are put into a compost
'Greens' are fresh (and often green) plant materials
such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit
and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds
and tea bags, fresh horse manure, etc. Compared
to browns, greens have more nitrogen in them. Nitrogen
is a critical element in amino acids and proteins,
and can be thought of as a protein source for the
billions of multiplying microbes.
A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional
balance for the microbes. This mix also helps out
with the aeration and amount of water in the pile.
Browns, for instance, tend to be bulky and promote
good aeration. Greens, on the other hand, are typically
high in moisture, and balance out the dry nature
of the browns.
Article and Picture © VegWeb, LLC
on "Composting Fundamentals" on Lisa's Blog.
Limited space? No soil? Toxic or rocky ground?
Spare corner? Edge of drive or yard? Here's bales
of advice for you on the straw bale gardening way.
Especially good for those with dickey backs, straw
bale gardening needs only someone to lug the jolly
bales into place and with a minimum of effort you'll
have a marvel of bounty and beauty indeed.
We can learn from others here. There are timely
tips on straw bale gardening that will save you
Here's the hoedown:
The bale is the garden. Put it on your balcony or
path if you want to.
Use one or umpteen bales as you need and in any
pattern. Because straw bale gardening is raised,
it's easy to work with, so make sure you allow for
Wheat or oat straw is best as it's the stalks left
from harvesting grain with very few seed left. Hay
bales are less popular as they are made of whole
plants with mucho seeds and often other weeds in.
Use what you can get locally - it may even be lucerne
or pea straw bales.
Put the bales in the exact place, because it's too
hard to even nudge these monsters once you've got
your little straw bale garden factory in full swing.
You'll get one good season out of a bale and usually
two, albeit with a bit of sag. It makes for great
compost or mulch when finished with. Straw bale
Lay them lengthwise to make planting easy by just
parting the straw. Make sure the string is running
around each bale and not on the side touching the
ground in case it's degradable twine.
Keep the twine there to hold it all in place and
if it does rot, bang some stakes in at both ends,
or chock up the ends with something heavyish, like
rocks, bricks, boxes or plant containers.
Starting off with slightly aged bales of about 6
months is best, but if they're new, thoroughly soak
with water and leave for 5 or so days whilst the
temperature rises and cooks the inside, then they
will cool and be ready for planting. They won't
be composting much inside yet, that takes months,
but you don't want that initial hot cooking of your
Some sneaky people speed up the process of producing
microbes and rot by following a 10-day pre-treatment
regime of water and ammonium nitrate on the top
of each bale. But, hey, organic gardeners are a
patient lot aren't we, so let's follow nature?
Keep watered. That's going to be your biggest task.
Straw bale gardening uses more water than a normal
garden, so set up a system now. It may be that swilling
out the teapot on it each day is enough in your
area, or you may need to keep the hose handy.
Straw bale gardening - plants to plant
Annuals of vegetables, herbs or flowers will love
it. Remember your bales will be history in 1-2 years.
Young plants can go straight in. Pull apart or use
a trowel and depending on the state of the straw,
put a handful of compost soil in too, then let the
straw go back into place.
Seeds can be planted on top if you put a layer of
compost soil there first.
Top heavies like corn and okra, are not so good,
unless you grow dwarf varieties. With straw bale
gardening it's hard to put solid stakes in so big
tomato plants are out, although they will happily
dangle over the edge.
Each bale should take up to half a dozen cucumbers,
trailing down. Squash, zucchini, melons - maybe
3 plants, or a couple of tomato plants per bale
with one or two herbs and leafy veggies in between.
Four pepper plants will fit or 12-15 bean or pea
There's no limit and why not poke in around the
side a plant or two of some flowering annual for
colour and companion if you like.
Once every 1-2 weeks water in a liquid organic feed,
such as compost tea or fish emulsion. Tip some worms
on top if you want to use your bales only one season.
It's simple to pull out any wayward grain seeds
with straw bale gardening, but with hay bales you
may need to occasionally give them a haircut rather
than try and pull the tenacious new sprouts out.
Article & Picture © no-dig-vegetablegarden.com
on "Straw Bale Gardening" on Lisa's Blog
on August 1: Building Green
Building Green: Making Your Home More Energy Efficient
Join Design Forward's Lisa Swan in Glendale on August
1, 2009 for a Building Green seminar for home owners.
Class Description: Whether you are interested in
a new house, remodeling your existing home, or just
adding a few sustainable features, this innovative
class will give you an in depth review of green
building and sustainable architecture. Learn about
solar and wind energy, wall systems such as straw
bale, insulated concrete forms and foam insulation,
natural and recycled materials, efficient windows
and appliances, and more. Also learn how you can
save money through State and local rebates.
Reference Class: SI011
Instructor: Lisa Swan is the owner of Design Forward,
a residential design firm, specializing in sustainable
and green projects. She is an Honors' graduate of
the Illinois Institute of Technology, with a Bachelor
of Architecture and has an MBA from Norwich University.
Date & Time: August 1, 2009 9:30am - 12:30am
Cost: $35, plus $10 materials fee is payable to
the instructor in class.
Location: Glendale, CA - Garfield Campus of the
Glendale Community College
Register Begins June 1, 2009: http://www.glendale.edu/cse
If you are interest in attending this class
and did not register yet, you can still attend!
Just come to the class and register same day.
on this article on Lisa's Blog
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