Monday, February 22, 2021

Building Soil

Seriously, this is what is bringing me joy right now.  I love the smell of dirt.  I'll often lay right down on the lawn at the park and delicately part the grasses, then I put my nose in there, so I can inhale that fresh bouquet of the soil.  Our park gets watered a couple of times each month, so it has the life giving moisture that all soil needs.  Some dirt is nearly dead, with little to no rainwater or irrigation, and subsequently no plant cover to protect it from the heat of the sun.  But when soil is moist, it is alive with possibilities and full of the promise of fruitfulness.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I learned of the drastic loss of top soil that we are experiencing every year, in America.  The tilling, and consequential erosion of wind and water, carries it all out to the sea.  So, I decided to learn how to 'build soil', right here in my own backyard, so as to do my own little part to reverse that dangerous trend.

I started by saving all of our kitchen scraps, in lidded, five-gallon buckets, just outside the back kitchen door.  Melon rinds, broccoli stem ends, onion peels and more, are all gathered in a little quart sized plastic container by the sink and then dumped into one of the buckets at the end of the day.  (During the summer, this always has a good fitting lid when the fruit flies abound.)  Everything gets pretty ripe in those buckets as the weeks pass by.  And after filling all four or five of them, the contents have sunk down and I can add some more.

On my mother's farm, the "slops" would have been fed to the pigs or to the chickens, fresh each day, and turned into vegetarian poop, otherwise know as great fertilizer for the garden.  But here in the city, we don't keep farm animals and so I let my compost pile, with it's lovely array of healthy worms, do the job of breaking down our veggie scrap slops into rich living soil.

Egg shells are a great addition to any compost pile, but we avoid any and all meat scraps, as that invites the maggots and the flies.  They might do just fine in a different situation, but here, in our little backyard operation, we stick to plant materials for our compost pile.

Way back when, while I was originally researching compost and how to make it, I came across, "The Rudolf Steiner Method."  Rudolf was a scientist and philosopher from the last century who started a whole movement of natural and intuitive methods for supporting life.  His is a spiritually-holistic approach to health and vitality in both the home and in the garden.

For his compost, Rudolf preferred a no stir, layered pile method.  He chose a number of specific plants to encourage the growth of the main families of bacteria found here on earth.  They include: the flowers and leaves of Yarrow, German Chamomile, Dandelion and Valerian along with the stems and leaves of Stinging Nettle and the bark and leaves of White Oak.  All of that seemed like an excellent idea to me.  So, I set about gathering each of the ingredients and I layered them in generously with my fall leaves.  On his recommendations, I also used a base of dried mustard stalks, to allow air to continue to penetrate under the pile.  

Every year, I re-seed my new compost pile with at least a few big healthy scoops of the previous year's rich black mulch, scattered in between the layers, to carry that original intention forward with it's energetic and bacterial components.  I've since found out that you can purchase little bags of Rudolf Steiner's compost mix to use in seeding those wonderful plant energies into a layered pile.

Sometimes I'll use corn stalks or some other air-filled plant stems at the base of my pile, instead of the dried mustard.  I also like to include alfalfa in my compost.  Alfalfa leaves are rich in nitrogen, which is the main nutrient for healthy plant growth.  With it's long leafy stems, alfalfa also adds stability and structure to the pile, so I arrange it nicely as I'm layering on the various materials.  And, nitrogen helps organic material to decompose.

Pine needles are acidic in nature.  As most of our soils tend toward alkalinity, pine needles, that have broken down into compost, help to balance the pH of the soil, thus making all of the minerals and nutrients more available for uptake by the fine root hairs on a growing plants tiny little roots.  

A good compost pile also needs one other vital ingredient, something to help it get hot and cook everything awhile.  This ingredient is moisture.  And this is where my slops come in.  I make a nice mashed potatoes hole in the top of the pile and pour all of those slimy, moldy, decomposing veggie bits right in there, stinking to high heaven.  To put an end to that fecund stench, I have a nice pile of dry leaves, at the ready, to plunk on top.  This caps the smell.  And those slops invite the worms to come in from all around the garden and do their job of breaking everything down, swallowing it and pooping it out as worm castings, all through the matrix.

If I have a lot of leaves and they are all really dry, I'll put a little sprinkler on top of the pile and let it run overnight.  Either that or a good soaking rain will help to get things going.  Another abundantly available item, that can add moisture and heat to a pile, is freshly-mown (non-stoloniferous,) lawn grass clippings or wild soft spring grasses, pulled or harvested before they have set seed.  These can either be added to the pile as layers, while it is being built, or they can be carefully massaged down into the center of a pile after it has been formed.  The tender, fresh, moist shoots will break down right away and generate the heat needed to really speed a pile along.  Horse or cow manure can do this too.  I'll often top my pile with a blanket of black plastic sheeting, which I hold in place with a smallish fallen branch or two.  Here in dry California, this helps to hold both the heat and the moisture in.

Generally, after summer has come and gone, when the leaves begin to fall, I gather them up in my wheelbarrow and stow them somewhere near my pile.  I pick out all of the sticks, that are bigger than a pencil, as these will take too long to break down.  I might also visit a local horse farm, with an empty trash can, for a little manure, and perhaps I'll ask if I can clean up some of the alfalfa scraps from the hay barn floor.  I keep my eyes open for roadside banks of pine needles and fill an old trash bag full with them.  Then along comes the day, usually in the early spring, when I feel inspired to jump in there with my trusty pitch fork and shovel and start the layering process, taking first a little of this then a little of that.  I also sprinkle a few shovelfuls of my own native soil, to enrich my compost pile, with all of the microorganisms found there, as well.

I used to have a nice bin with a concrete floor and a single row of concrete blocks around the sides and back, with a plank board wall on top of the blocks about five feet high.  But then we needed that space for another use and now I build my pile free standing on top of an old piece of plywood.  Rudolf Steiner didn't have a floor under his piles.  But, I find it helpful to have something under there to discourage all of my tree roots from reaching up and taking advantage of all that good nutrition, thereby congesting my pile.  

Most of the decomposition takes place within two or three months, especially if I've added a lot of manure or fresh spring grass to the pile.  Unlike Rudolf, I'll let my pile sit idyl for up to a year, until the following spring planting season gets into full swing.  I might raid it two or three times for various mulching or potting projects.  But I only completely dig it all out, casting it around the garden, replenishing my vegetable boxes and mulching the trees, before I completely rebuild it, generally only once a year.

The amazing thing about this composting method is that the pile looks the same all year round, as if nothing is happening in there.  It may shrink down a little, but all of the leaves on top seem perfectly intact.  However, if you brush them aside, and dig your hands in below the surface, you'll find dense rich living compost ready to enrich your garden and add beautiful layers of nutrient rich soil to your life and home.  Enjoy.