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February 22, 2014

Saturday Gardening Thread: Letís Get Dirty Edition [Y-not and WeirdDave]

Good morning, morons & moronettes, and welcome to your Saturday Gardening Thread!

This thread brought to you by International Harvester:

I'm going to get myself one of these!

And now for the Comedy Stylings of WeirdDave:

Well, it seems that this thread has become a regular part of the blog. Ace mentioned enjoying it in a post this week, so I thought maybe it was time to give an accounting of how we put this together, a behind the scenes look if you will. First of all, you need to know that I am completely superfluous to the process. Y- not is the heart of the garden thread, sheís Dr. Ray Stantz to my Peter Venkman. She comes up with content, I run around making fart jokes and hitting on Sigourney Weaver. For example, this week she sent me an email saying that she wanted to talk about compost. Eager to do my part I didnít reply. Yesterday she sent me another email saying that she had written a very long post about compost, to which I replied ďYou mean itís full of shit?Ē Yea, I dunno why she continues to work with me either.

Anyhow, if compost is the subject, then I suppose I better write about compost. Iím sure that Y-not has lots of fascinating information below, talking about household waste, aging, rotation, fertilizer and when to add beer to your compost heap. I donít know about any of that stuff. I do however know how to use one particular aspect of decomposing organic matter to enrich your garden, so thatís what Iím going to talk about.

Whatís the oldest strategy know to man for enriching soil? Something that goes back to the earliest chapter of Genesis? Simple. Bodies. What do you think Cain did with Able after he put paid to the smug son of a bitch? He buried him and planted wheat on his face, thatís what. That wheat grew strong and tall, long after Cain departed for Nod. You can compost banana peels, eggshells, coffee grounds and leaves all day long, but nothing gives dirt that extra growing boost like a human body. If you decide to utilize this ancient farming method, however, there are a few things to consider.

First of all, where do you get a body to bury? The obvious answer is to kill someone yourself. I donít recommend doing this. Itís illegal in more than half the jurisdictions in America, check your local laws. Plus itís messy, and for some reason, no matter how rhapsodic you wax about the tomatoes you plan on growing, itís hard to find someone to volunteer to be fertilizer (Germans seem to be more likely to be an exception to this rule for some reason http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armin_Meiwes). Hobos seem to be an obvious solution, but being morons, weíre contractually bound to eat them. Mortuaries have ridiculous security, and if you dig a body up from a graveyard itís sadly already lost a bunch of itís nutrients. Fortunately, there is an easy solution. Find your local wiseguy bar and prowl the trunks of the Lincolns and Caddies outside. I never have to pop more than three trunks before I find a fresh body. Grab it and steal away into the night. Be careful! If those guys catch you, someone will be stealing your body a day or so later to begin growing peppers on it, those mob guys have no appreciation for gardening at all. Check the body before you abscond, one year I grabbed a body that had been stored in nuclear waste and my vegetables grew twisted. The tomatoes were yowling all night long and the corn started walking around. I got most of them, but I think thereís still one hanging around the woods behind my house eating rabbits.

Now that you have your body, how deep do you plant it? Deep. No, deeper. Deeper. Keep digging, what are you, some kind of a pussy? I said deep! There are two reasons for this. Number one, the deeper the body is buried, the more soil it will fertilize. I recommend one body per 400 cubic feet of soil. Second, you need to leave room to put next yearís body on top of it, donít you? If you donít leave enough room for this, in a couple of years youíll have bones sticking out of the soil all over the place. This happened to me a while back, and when the cops stopped by and started asking questions.....awkward! Fortunately they bought my story that I was creating a diorama of the Battle of the Somme, but it was dicey there for a few minutes. Dig deep and avoid the hassle.

Finally, people often ask me if they should rotate their bodies year to year. I donít recommend this for two reasons. Number one, itís an awful lot of work. Why do more than you have to? Second, bodies tend to become disjointed over time. You start out be trying to simply move a body over a few feet and next thing you know the dog runs off with a femur or somebodyís finger bone is stuck in the back of your boot rubbing your ankle raw. No, itís better to just set Ďem and forget Ďem. Decomposition is a wonderful thing, let it work itís magic.

I hope these tips help if you decide to attempt the hottest new thing in gardening thatís also the oldest in the world. Happy gardening

And now from your co-hostess, Y-not:

When I was a little girl I would visit my grandmother who lived in a very old house in New England. I remember quite vividly that she always had an old coffee can by her sink where sheíd put some of her kitchen waste. I always assumed it was because they had old plumbing that would seize up if an apple peel went down the drain, but now I realize she was probably composting!

Flash-forward four decades and Iím living in a nice suburban neighborhood in a climate suitable for growing things and with some time on my hands. But my soil is a dark grey-brown clay. I want to grow some of my own food, especially those hard to find and/or expensive things like snacking peppers and herbs, but I am never EVER going to be willing to invest the time, brain-power, or energy to do much more than plant the things, water them, and keep the weeds down. That said, I like the idea of having a way to establish and maintain really high-quality soil for these plants. So whatís a girl to do?

I think one thing I should try to do this year is start composting. Although we set up some raised beds last year for edible things, my flower and shrub beds are still basically that horrible clay soil so they could use some attention. And Iíd like to refresh the raised beds with organic material, preferably at low cost. So this week I thought Iíd share some of the things Iíve learned about composting and, as usual, solicit the horde for some advice about the process.

When I thought of composting I envisioned a big pile of leaves and other plant materials, probably/possibly in an open four-sided box. I also picture some strong person standing there with a yard fork turning the heavy material on a regular basis. Well, it turns out there are a bunch of different ways to compost, depending on your situation and your needs. Per the the University of Missouri extension website, there are five basic approaches:

Holding units are easy to build and good for small amounts of yard wastes, but they are the slowest to produce compost.

Turning bins can handle larger amounts of material and compost them rather quickly, but they are harder to build and require more labor to maintain. There are a couple of types: sets of adjacent bins affixed to the ground and barrels that are turned. The utility of the barrel-type seems to be a matter of some vigorous debate. In the interest of time and space, I'll simply provide a link to a side-by-side comparison of these types of composters.

Worm bins are great for food wastes, but they need to be maintained in a somewhat climate-controlled area, so they may not work for everyone. If youíre interested in reading more, I thought this was a good FAQ list about worm composting. And hereís a fun page aimed at the kiddies, courtesy of the University of Illinois: The Adventures of Herman the Worm.

Heaps require no structure, so theyíre very cheap. But if you want the composting to occur quickly, you need to turn them by hand and they are not very pretty. Seems to me dogs or other critters might tend to disrupt them, too.

Finally, WeirdDave's method: soil incorporation. This is basically burying small amounts of non-fatty food below 8 inches. Application and scale seem limited to me, although truth be told we inadvertently did a version of this with my childhood cat when I was a kid.

The good folks at Fine Gardening provide what I thought was an especially good primer on getting started, even providing some of the scientific basis for how composting works.

Per Utah State Universityís extension site, the key aspects in maintaining your compost pile are:

Turn pile every 2 to 4 weeks, and keep pile moist to speed composting, allow air circulation and eliminate unpleasant odors.

Build pile 3 to 5 feet tall, with an equal circumference. Small piles don't heat enough, and large piles don't receive enough air in the middle for good composting.

Apply a 1" layer of soil every 8 to 14 inches of organic waste to increase microbial activity


The basics of a composting set up, per USU Extension.

Another university, Texas A&M, has plans for building different types of composters, including the barrel type. This is the type that appeals to me the most because of the promise of efficient composting on a smallish scale that I could do myself without having to nag Mr Y-not to turn the compost pile every other week.

(Incidentally, TAMUís extension site also describe plastic bag composting, which sounds like a simple method but does require adding some chemicals, in part to counteract the effects of composting happening anaerobically.)

So, if you want to get started composting and youíre like me (weak and lazy) where would you get a ďbarrel styleĒ composter?

Well, you could try to make it yourself. Hereís a link to the Art of Simple blog an example of a pretty common design based on a large trashcan. It certainly sounds simple and inexpensive (although where do you find such a large lidded trashcan and plant dolly for $15, even at 2009 prices?), but I wonder about the feasibility of mixing your composting materials by rolling a ginormous trash can around your yard.

Or you could shop around. Mother Earth News (yeah, yeah, I know!) published their results from testing compost tumblers. And another outfit called Earth Easy describes the pros and cons of different designs.

Finally, Williams-Sonoma Ė yes, the place where a lot of us buy fancy-schmancy cookware Ė sells composters. As it turns out, W-S started an agrarian product line a couple of years ago. I have mixed feelings about it. So do a lot of people.

Some people are virulently opposed On Principle:

Really, though, Williams-Sonoma has done us a great favor. Remember back like, 10 years ago, when someone had to talk to you for a few minutes to figure out that you were a douchebag? Williams-Sonoma has managed to take conversation out of the douchebag vetting process. You walk into someoneís house, you see a flour grinder or other product from this line, and you know you are in enemy territory.

(Seems a bit over-wrought to me.)

Another blogger weighs in on the W-S agrarian line and comes off a lot less angry about it:

Some people in the hardcore DIY community (you know who you are) may have scoffed a bit at the idea of Williams-Sonoma, a genteel and polished mega-mall staple store, serving a market populated by of a bunch of anti-consumerist dirt-loviní neo-hippies. Dirty hippies get so confounded when everything they are doing is suddenly the height of suburban trendiness. (I mean dirty hippie with the greatest respect and affection, of course.)

A fair amount of my bakeware, a Le Creuset pot and some of my knife collection came from an employee-discounted-stint as a holiday seasonal worker at my local Williams-Sonoma, and I have nothing at all against the store. So when the Agrarian line launched, I took a long virtual look at the Agrarian Collection, and Ė all pseudo-dirty hippie DIY-girl pride aside Ė I would totally buy some of this stuff.

Then she points to some things she would not buy from the agrarian line. For example their copper digging tools priced in excess of $300. I love this section:

If you actually need to, you know, garden, by digging and forking in the soil, stay away from tools made from one of the softest metals around.

You know those late night infomercials where the knife cuts through the penny? And you know those machines at the zoo that take a penny plus a few quarters and press the penny into a fun keepsake embossed with a lemur? Thatís should give you an idea how soft copper is.

Sticklers will point out that a modern penny is actually mostly zinc. Zinc has a Youngís modulus Ė the measurement of how much a metal resists deforming Ė of 108 GPa; copper is quite close at 117 GPa. For comparison, steel, the material most good $30 shovels are made of, is nearly 80% harder at 210 GPa.

OK, I gotta say, I LIKE this blogger. Anyone who uses the term Youngís modulus in a garden blog (or anywhere outside of a physics lab) is A-OK by me! So NW Edible is my Blog of the Week.

So, to those morons and Ďettes who have experience composting, what is your advice?

Next week, I think we should talk about raised beds. (I can't wait to see what WeirdDave does with THAT topic!) By the way, I bought mine*, although NOT from Williams-Sonoma, NTTAWWT.

*From Walmart!

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:25 AM

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