Tagged with "Compost"
This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on August 24, 2023.
Photo: Edwina von Gal doesn’t throw away anything from her garden. Clippings go into compost and any branches that fall or break from storms get turned into habitat piles that are embedded throughout her property on Eastern Long Island. She and her team love the process of knitting branches together to build this nest. “It’s meditative,” she says.
With all the recent storms and severe weather happening, it feels like we’re besieged with debris from trees and shrubs. Instead hauling it to the landfill, where it will just add to methane pollution, make something beautiful and beneficial out of it. In fact, keeping garden debris, or biomass (organic matter like branches, stems, and leaves), on your property is one of the principles of nature-based gardening we introduced in last month’s column with Perfect Earth Project. Brush piles offer protection to birds, like wrens, thrushes, and warblers, and other wildlife, like amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Leaf litter becomes homes for insects. And when biomass decomposes, it feeds your soil—for free!
There are artful ways to display biomass in your garden. Take a cue from Edwina von Gal, founder of Perfect Earth Project, who constructs striking sculptures out of debris gathered from her yard on Eastern Long Island. She’s woven branches through tree trunks, built walls out of logs, and knitted sticks together to create large nests. “Tailor the style of your habitat pile to the style of your garden,” she says. If your garden is tightly managed, create something more deliberate, recommends von Gal. On the other hand, if you have a meadow or loosely planted beds, like von Gal has in her garden, you can be freer in your construction.
At Chanticleer garden in Wayne, PA, assistant horticulturist Chris Fehlhaber constructs a habitat pile each year after the meadow is cut back in early spring. (He waits as long as possible to cut back the meadow with a scythe to allow for overwintering insects to emerge.) To craft the stack, Fehlhaber drives a wood stake in the ground and builds around it so that it’s sturdy and strong. “I start by creating a level base and then work around the pole in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation to ensure there is plenty of overlap for strength, stability, and balance,” he says. He continues the process until all the material is used. “Then, I gather woody debris from the previous year and ‘top’ the stack with it, arranging the branches on top to create a well-balanced dome, which helps weigh the top down and sit it neatly around the pole.”
“Songbirds, insects, toads, and snakes have all been observed utilizing the stacks for shelter,” says Fehlhaber. He’s spied goldfinches using them to feed on seedheads in the meadow during fall and winter and to hide from predators, like red-tailed hawks. “The coarse nature of the stacks means there are many niches for birds and wildlife,” he says.
Channel your inner Andy Goldsworthy or Maren Hassinger (see her inspiring exhibit at LongHouse Reserve, made from branches gathered on the property), and create art from nature. “Think of every fallen branch you find or invasive shrub you cut down, as a new opportunity,” says von Gal. “Be creative and have fun.”
[Photos by Melissa Ozawa]
Stack logs from fallen or diseased trees you removed to create walls or screens in your garden. They also provide habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. “Yes, you really do need snakes,” says von Gal. “They eat voles and other small critters, like white-footed mice, a primary vector of Lyme disease.” Here, a border of cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) thrives behind the wall.
Instead of discarding the branches of non-native California privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) she removed, von Gal wove them into the trunks of native Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana).
This beautiful nest of pinecones, needles, and branches will breakdown over time, feeding the soil.
Several years ago when I was at Chanticleer, the dreamy garden in Wayne, PA, I fell for this simple habitat pile tucked away in the meadow. Chris Fehlhaber builds each stack around a center post. As the stack settles, gaps form around the post. “Bumblebees use this gap to gain access to the interior of the stack, which is likely relatively well-sheltered and dry, to make their nests,” he says.
Photo: Chris Fehlhaber
At Chanticleer, this habitat pile sits among spring-bloomers. “Today, the stacks are part of what I call a carbon positive approach to maintenance as no fossil fuels are used, ever, only gardener power,” says Chris Fehlhaber, who makes the stacks every spring.
Photo by Chris Fehlhaber
In winter, Chanticleer’s graphic habitat stacks become snow-covered sculpture
This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on July 28, 2023.
Photo by Edwina von Gal: A bountiful summer meadow flaunts black-eyed Susans and beebalm. To support pollinators, plan to have at least three different types (nine is ideal) of native plants in bloom during each of the growing seasons to provide a steady feast.
This morning in my family’s garden, we found two monarch caterpillars sporting their yellow, black, and white stripes munching on some milkweed. Overhead a song sparrow trilled. It’s been about five years since we started filling the small beds with native plants, and we’ve noticed a big change. What was once a generic garden full of sterile cultivars is now a hive of activity. I couldn’t be happier, but, also, I know there’s more to do for this ecosystem, and more discoveries to uncover. Through my work with Perfect Earth Project, I’m learning more about how to garden sustainably, specifically the principles of nature-based gardening.
Simply put, nature-based gardening means working hand-in-hand with nature, not trying to tame it into submission by clipping, mowing, and spraying it to fit an outdated notion of beauty. As Perfect Earth founder Edwina von Gal says, “Stop putting your garden into shapewear.” Instead, work with nature: Nurture your soil. Grow the plants native to your region and allow them to flourish without chemicals. Provide habitat for wildlife (humans aren’t the only inhabitants here). Plant a keystone tree (or ten!). You’ll be amazed, I promise, at the beautiful, bustling, and interesting environment that almost magically appears. As Joy Harjo writes in “For Keeps,” “Sun makes the day new. / Tiny green plants emerge from earth. / Birds are singing the sky into place. / There is nowhere else I want to be but here.”
Here are Perfect Earth’s principles of nature-based gardening.
1. Grow Native Plants in Your Garden.
They need so little, and they give so much. Aim for at least two-thirds in your yard.
2. Remove Invasives.
Get rid of the non-native plants that are taking over our landscapes and outcompeting native plants.
3. Say NO to Toxic Chemicals.
Nature-based landscapes don’t need synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to thrive.
4. Nurture your Soil.
Your garden is only as healthy as the soil in which it grows.
5. Maintain Biomass, and Mind the Mulch.
Leave the leaves and all organic matter, make compost, and grow a living mulch.
6. Reduce your carbon footprint. Less noise, less pollution.
Tend to your garden manually or go electric. Your neighbors (and your ears) will thank you.
7. Prune Prudently.
Stop chopping with abandon! Every cut is a wound.
8. Plant Trees Properly.
Do right by roots and don’t bury the crown when planting trees.
9. Water Your Lawn Deeply.
At least 30 minutes and only as needed.
10. Reduce Your Lawn.
Return part of your yard to the birds, bees, and butterflies. Maintain the lawn you do keep by following toxic-free practices.
11. Plant a Habitat Garden.
And watch the pollinators and wildlife flock to it.
12. Have Faith, Have Fun.
Change from a fussy and restrictive landscaping style to something more comfortable, loose, and personal. Let your landscape surprise you.
To learn more about each of these practices, download Perfect Earth’s guide to Nature-Based Gardening here.
Photo: Toshi Yano
Moisture-loving blue vervain (Verbena hastata) grows in a field in New York. It’s attractive to birds, butterflies, like the common buckeye, and bees, especially bumble bees.
Photo: Melissa Ozawa
Beebalm or monarda, a perennial native to the eastern U.S., produces firework-like flowers in mid-summer. Here, a hummingbird moth can’t resist stopping for a drink.
Photo: Melissa Ozawa
If you plant it, they will come. While fritillary butterfly larvae don’t eat milkweed (they subsist on violets, instead), the adult butterflies will drink the nectar from milkweed.
In November, I wrote about why it is so important to keep biomass (organic matter) on your property and some easy creative ways to manage various types such as branches, leaves, grasses, and garden clippings (Closing the Loop, Part 1).
The way to make the bulk of your biomass into free fertilizer is composting. It is the best-known way, and the most misunderstood.
Composting is simply the act of decomposition; like aging, it is inevitable, just do nothing at all and your various landscape stuff will eventually break down into the ground; that is what happens in the wild. If composting is so easy, and so important an environmental act, why doesn’t everyone do it?
In the managed landscape we like to play a role in how and where the decomposing happens, so we make compost piles. Anything organic can go into a compost pile, and if you just leave it, you will, eventually, absolutely have compost.
But, without some assistance, the process will be slow, and, depending on what you put in there, it could attract pests. In an informal survey of young homeowners (courtesy of my niece April) the amount of work required, the amount of space needed, and the possibility of smells and rodents came out as the top reasons why people don’t compost. But do not worry, these are all very easily overcome.
You really should be composting.
Composting relies on microbes, which can do the job with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic). Home composting is aerobic; the key components for happy, hungry microbes are the right balance of air and water. Happily, microbes are very tolerant. If they aren’t getting the right balance, they just slow down.
WORK: You can do nothing and let your compost pile break down slowly or you can help with the air and water to make the microbes more active. Turning a compost pile keeps it aerated. Occasional watering keeps it from drying out. Covering with a tarp helps keep the moisture in but also keeps it from getting too wet. The more you work to keep your pile turned and the right amount of moist, the faster your compost happens.
Compost piles can be cold or hot. Hot compost heats up and kills off pathogens and weed seeds. It is faster than cold. It requires a carefully monitored mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and oxygen. Sometimes compost heats up all by itself but creating a reliably hot compost is a lot of work. Hot compost is important for garden nerds and compost professionals, but as I think EVERYONE should compost, I focus on the easy version, cold composting. It is simple, it works. It closes the loop just fine.COLD COMPOSTING (it is logical, there are no mysteries):
- Air? If you don’t want to turn the pile, start with a layer of twigs and/or wood chips and add more fluffy stuff (leaves, small branches) between successive layers to provide airflow.
- Time? The smaller the pieces, the faster they break down. So, if you wish to speed things up, as well as reduce the size of your heap, run your mower over the leaves and chop up garden trimmings into smaller pieces before adding to your pile.
- Bulk? For large amounts of compost and faster results, use the 3-pile system (see below).
- Moisture? Remember the moisture: if dry, add some water and then cover the pile with a tarp weighted down with bricks or logs.
- Weed seeds? Make a separate pile for plants with seeds or viable roots. Don’t use compost from this pile in your garden beds until you are sure the seeds and roots have been there so long, they are dead. If you aren’t turning and your piles start sprouting, do your best to cut or pull the growth before it goes to seed. Or just keep heaping stuff on top to suppress growth.
- Rodents? Not a problem if you are turning your pile very frequently, but if that’s not happening, don’t put “food” (kitchen scraps) in the heap; use a rodent-proof closed bin system (see below).
- Smells? It is anaerobic decomposition that stinks. If your pile has enough air, it will smell earthy-good. Kitchen scraps add a lot of moisture and can get anaerobic/smelly (not to mention the rodent thing), so turn them a lot or used a closed bin system.
- Additives? What about adding manure or other inputs? This is only needed if you are growing produce like fruits and vegetables that require high fertility. If you are removing food from your garden, you need to replace what you have taken, that’s another story. PRFCT focuses on food for non-human life forms; they live, eat, poop, and die in your garden; that’s the closed loop.
- Sun or Shade? Warmth is good to keep the organisms going, but too much sun can overheat them and dry out the pile. Best (but not essential) to pick a spot that gets a bit of shade in the heat of the summer and sun in the winter.
- Done? Compost is ready when there are no big chunks. If you want to get fancy, you can screen it before adding to your plantings and throw any chunks back on the pile.
- Don’t? Put anything in that has been exposed to pesticides (pre-emergent herbicides, broadleaf killers, insecticides) which may kill the microbes and/or inhibit growth of beds where the compost is eventually applied. Best not to use pesticides in the first place.
- More Don’t? Avocado pits, corn cobs, citrus peels, dog and cat poop (except if on certain medications) – too slow to break down or too icky for an open pile but fine in closed bin.
- Piles: heap everything in one or more places that are convenient and let it go or turn as your time and energy allow. Push the pile aside at the edges to remove finished compost beneath. Very big piles will take longer (less oxygen) so best to spread them out if space allows.
- Bins: build enclosures to contain piles and help you look and feel organized. Warning – most prefab bins are squares and make it fairly impossible to reach in and turn; you need at least one open side to access. Although it is nice to have some air flow in your bin walls, avoid using wire cages, as your spading fork (preferred tool for turning) will get stuck in it – very annoying.
- Configurations: If you have the space for lots of yard waste, and feel a bit more energetic, a 3-bin system is great – one space each for new, mid-process, and done. You can move the compost from bin to bin as it matures, or you can simply stop adding to a bin when it gets full and go to the next. Ideally, by the time the last bin is full, the first is ready for harvesting. That will depend, of course, on how big the bin, how much you add, and how often you turn.
- Closed Bins: rodent proof, odor free, space saving, self-aerating bins can take meat, fish, and dairy, and chunky stinky stuff. Turning is suggested but not essential. Most important is to add plenty of “carbon” (leaves, wood chips, sawdust, clean shredded paper, cardboard). For a very small property, one or two of these can be your entire composting system. I love my Green Johanna but have just purchased an Aerobin to test it. The problem with both is they are plastic and shipped from overseas.
- Contraptions: Rotating bins are another type of closed system now offered on most every garden retailing site. The concept seems solid: turning a handle is easier than turning a pile with a fork. The problems: 1) too small for most needs as they get too heavy to turn when larger. 2) At some point you need to stop adding material so you can finish what is in there. Buy, or make two or more of them. One of our respondents uses two barrels which she just rolls around. 3) Some require the purchase of proprietary “activator” pellets, which is contrary to the concept.
- Vermiculture: fun but fussy. Not recommended for those seeking low-maintenance options.
Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil. Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil.
If you turn your compost occasionally and maintain average moisture, it should be ready for use in 6 months to 1 year. Lazy version, figure on 2 years. Ready to:
- Fix bare patches in your lawn
- Top dress the entire lawn
- Add to soil when planting trees and shrubs
- Add to soil in raised veg beds
- Mix into new flower beds or scratch into old ones
- Let it be
Honor what your place produces; sending it to the dump uses fossil fuels for transport, generally involves dump fees, and creates methane (highly potent greenhouse gas) when it decomposes in the anaerobic landfill system.
Your yard does not produce garbage, it makes its own perfect food. It is free.
Quote: “This beautiful gift of attention that we human beings have is being hijacked to pay attention to products and someone else’s political agenda. Whereas, if we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts”. Robin Wall Kimmerer, NY Times Feb 2023
Book: The Uninhabitable Earth , David Wallace-Wells
If you use a landscaper for the maintenance of your property, the beginning of the year is contract renewal time. Of course you are probably starting this year anxious about your health and the environment and you aren’t sure whether signing up for a weekly dose of noise and poison in your yard is the best thing to do. It just doesn’t quite feel right, which adds to your eco-anxiety. But instead of worrying more, you could use this moment to do good. Guaranteed good for the environment, and super healthy for you and your family.
You just need to ask your landscaper to do things a bit differently by switching to nature-based practices. He/she may not know how, and chances are, you don’t know either. So who does know? Sadly, there are very few nature-based landscapers, and there probably isn’t anyone better for you to hire than the one you have got. So unless they flatly refuse to try, don’t fire them. Let’s engage and train the ones we’ve got, and send the message out that this is the future of land care. It is healthier for them too.
Everything you need to get started is in our PRFCT LeafLet Basics of Nature-Based in English and Spanish. For a typical annual maintenance schedule, which you can use as the basis of your new contract, go straight to page 21 – review it with your landscaper. It should not cost more, there are no products to purchase.
What is nature-based? Here’s the nutshell: Healing, not Harming. Let nature do the nurturing.
- No toxic fertilizers or insecticides. Fertilizers overstimulate plants and make them susceptible to disease. The right plant for your soil, doesn’t need them. Insecticides are not target specific, they kill beneficial insects and soil organisms. You don’t depend on your landscape to eat, so why not share it with a host of wonderful life forms that could find refuge there?
- Retain, recycle and reimagine all biomass. Keep what your property produces (grass clippings, leaves, twigs, weeds, etc.) and feed it back to the soil. It is the food your place made for itself. Better than anything you can buy, and without the carbon footprint. (See PRFCT Lawn Basics for more).
- Plant at least 2/3 native plants. Plants did fine without us humans for eons, so if you plant the ones that evolved in your conditions, they will still be fine with very little from you. Plus, they provide just the right food and shelter for local birds and pollinators. (See 2/3 for the Birds for more).
- Avoid and remove invasive plants. Get to know which plants are invasive. (See the Invasive Plant Atlas for more). Don’t buy them. Remove and replace any you have already got. (See Beyond Pesticides for more).
- Water properly. Very seldom. Very deep. Over-watering is one of the most common landscape malpractices. It leads to a wide range of plant and soil problems and promotes tick and mosquito populations.
- Minimize pruning. Every cut is a wound. Plant with plenty of space for trees and shrubs to grow to their natural shapes. Leave deadwood and standing dead trees, unless positioned dangerously, they provide unique food and nesting opportunities.
- Relax and enjoy. Your landscape is not your living room; forcing it to be tidy, clipped, and fixed in time is “dead room.” Let it be alive; always changing and creating new surprising delights for you.
Keep in mind, your landscaper doesn’t necessarily know any more about this than you do. So make sure he/she understands that this is an adventure in earth friendly relationships and as long as they are willing to truly commit to the practices, you will be happy. It is a whole new way to relate to your land.
Hooray, eco-anxiety reduction in action! You are doing something unquestionably good for the earth. (Not to mention yourself, your family, and your pets). Once you get started, you will find there was nothing to fear. It is all fascinating, joyous, and beautiful.
If you encounter some problem that makes you want to give up, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggestion: Watch as your nature-based landscape supports more and more birds and pollinators. Start recognizing and recording them on iNaturalist and eBird, and become part of a global network of citizen scientists.
Next month: Help me prepare for Biomass Part 2. Send me your composting concerns. If you aren’t composting, why not? If you are, what worries you? Write me: email@example.com
Bonus: All you ever wanted to know about climate change.
Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
It’s Fall and here comes the Plant Biomass -- leaves, twigs, tumbling grasses, and the last of the fluffy seedheads. Biomass is all the organic stuff your property makes and, in the PRFCT world, gets to keep…all for itself. Plant biomass provides habitat for insects and adds decomposing matter, which makes healthy soil, which feeds healthy plants, which makes more biomass. That’s the way of the food web loop.
We are all hearing about Leave the Leaves, so while we are figuring out how to do that, why not just do it all, and close the loop: save ALL your biomass? Imagine: No biomass sent to the landfill; no fertilizers, mulch, or compost bought in. Nothing your property makes is treated as garbage. Total harmony, perfect balance, major good for the planet, and for you.
Leaves alone can be a challenge to manage, and they degrade quickly, what about the longer lasting stuff: Twigs, branches, even whole trees; how to find a place for them? ARTFULLY!
Leaves: Chop (when dry!) with a mower and leave as many as possible on the lawn. Next batch can go into planting beds, chopped or not. All the rest – compost. Chopping does damage to insects tucked in for the winter, like Fireflies and Luna Moths, so please do keep that in mind.
Twigs: Make habitat piles as ephemeral art. Wrens and Thrushes especially like having such places to hide from predators and nasty weather.
Every place’s pile has its own personality. The bigger a garden, the more biomass it makes. The more habitat it hosts.
Branches: Get them chipped and use them for garden paths and for smothering difficult weeds.
Get inventive! Every fall, every fallen branch, every invasive shrub cut down, a new opportunity.
Trees: Log piles make great dividers and screens, plus habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. Yes, you really do need snakes, they eat voles.
Stumps: The heart of a Hügel, (the hill in HügelKulture) PRFCT Earth style. Place stumps and funky logs in a shallow hole. Cover with twigs, sod/soil, leaves, compost, whatever needs a place to decompose. Wet it all down well. Plant a cover crop, or finish with an imaginative use of biomass, like more twigs, or leaves. The stump, deep in the center of it all, emanates moisture and feeds the biome. Artful decomposition.
Meadow and Flower Bed Cuttings (late spring): Haystacks! So many wonderful ways to make them– old sticks can get used up inside…also handy for smothering weeds.