Manure or not, it’s compost time. I like to make enough compost through summer so that it can get cooking before autumn’s cold weather sets in. Come spring, I give the pile one turn and by the midsummer the black gold is ready to slather onto vegetable beds or beneath choice trees and shrubs.
I haven’t gotten around to getting some manure for awhile so I just went ahead this morning and started building a new pile without manure. It’s true: You do not need manure to make compost. Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.
My piles are a little more deliberate than mere heaps of organic materials. For one thing, everything goes into square bins each about 4′ on a side and built up, along with the materials within, Lincoln-log style from notched 1 x 6 manufactured wood decking. Another nice feature of this system is that the compost is easy to pitchfork out of the pile as sidewalls are removed with the lowering compost.
My main compost ingredient is hay that I scythe from an adjoining field. As this material is layered and watered into the bin it also gets sprinkled regularly with some soil and limestone. Soil adds some bulk to the finished material. The limestone adds alkalinity to offset the naturally increasing acidity of many soils here in the Northeast. Into the pile also goes any and all garden and kitchen refuse whenever available.
What manure adds to a compost pile is bedding, usually straw or wood shavings, and what comes out of the rear end of the animal. The latter is useful for providing nitrogen to balance out the high carbon content of older plant material in the compost, such as my hay.
But manure isn’t the only possible source of nitrogen. Young, green, lush plants are also high in nitrogen, as are kitchen trimmings, hair, and feathers. Soybean meal, or some other seed meal, is another convenient source.
Compost piles fed mostly kitchen trimmings or young plants benefit from high carbon materials. Otherwise, these piles become too aromatic, not positively.
As I wrote above, “Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.” Nitrogen speeds up decomposition of high carbon compost piles, enough to shoot temperatures in the innards of the pile to 150° or higher. All that heat isn’t absolutely necessary but does kill off most pests, including weed seeds, quicker than slow cooking compost piles.
Plus, it’s fun nurturing my compost pets, the microorganisms that enjoy life within a compost pile.
Novel Use for Microwave
I bought my first (and only) microwave oven a few years ago ($25 on craigslist) and have cooked up many batches of soil in it. You thought I was going to use it to cook food? Nah.
Usually, I don’t cook my potting soils, which I make by mixing equal parts sifted compost, garden soil, peat moss, and perlite, with a little soybean meal for some extra nitrogen. I avoid disease problems, such as damping off of seedlings, with careful watering and good light and air circulation rather than by sterilizing my potting soils.
Recently, however, too many weeds have been sprouting in my potting soil. Because my compost generally gets hot enough to snuff out weed seeds and because peat and perlite are naturally weed-free, these ingredients aren’t causing the problem. Garden soil in the mix is the major source of weeds.
So I cook up batches of garden soil, using the hi setting of the microwave oven for 20 minutes. My goal is to get the temperature up to about 180 degrees F., which does NOT sterilize the soil, but does pasteurize it. Overheating soil leads to release of ammonia and manganese, either of which can be toxic to plants. Sterilizing it also would leave a clean slate on which any microorganism, good or bad, could have a field day. Pasteurizing the soil, rather than sterilizing it, leaves some good guys around to fend off nefarious invaders.
After the soil cools, I add it to the other ingredients, mix everything up thoroughly, and shake and rub it through ½ inch hardware cloth mounted in a frame of two-by-fours. This mix provides a good home for the roots of all my plants, everything from my lettuce seedlings to large potted fig trees.
Blueberries, as usual, are bearing heavily this year, with over 60 quarts already in the freezer and almost half that amount in our bellies. After years of growing this native fruit, it has never failed me, despite some seasons of too little rain, some of too much rain, late frost, or other traumas suffered by fruit crops generally.
All of which leads up to my invitation to you to come (virtually) to my upcoming Blueberry Workshop webinar. This webinar will cover everything from choosing plants to planting to the two important keys to success with blueberries, pests, harvest, and preservation. And, of course, there will be opportunity for questions. For more and updated information, keep and eye on www.leereich.com/workshops, the “workshops” page of my website.