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on sustainability, part 2: the thoughtful composter

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By Jen White · August 24, 2011 · 0 Comments ·

This summer, Paul and I tried growing a few vegetables and herbs in containers on our porch, and for first-time growers, we managed to do an acceptable job.  We ate about 12 remarkably sweet tomatoes [pictured at left], some bell and cayenne peppers, strawberries, and raspberries, and never wanted for herbs.  We did some bare-bones growing, not using any pesticides, of course, but also not really feeding the plants, which we're realizing now would've made some of the other things we planted--eggplant and zucchini, for instance--actually produce.  So before we plant for the fall, we're doing some serious studying.


My friend Donn Cooper is a genius gardener.  He's so good at it, in fact, that he now manages the garden at Greyfeld Inn on beautiful Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Recently, I asked Donn if he had any composting tips to share with us and our readers.  Now, Donn is always a very thoughtful person (see this article I linked to last week), whether he's baking biscuits, discussing books, or playing pool--but he's an exceptionally talented educator, as you can see in this wealth of information he's been so kind to share.  If you are in the deep South's temperature zone, have sandy soil, or are just interested in what the heck compost is for, read on--and feel free to add your own two cents.

Here's what Donn has to say:

Composting on Cumberland is absolutely essential. There are a couple reasons for this, namely because resources are scarce and moving materials difficult. The dirt in our garden is extremely poor. As a matter of fact, it's just sand. Major plant nutrients like potassium are missing, and total organic matter is about nil. As an organic gardener looking to build a nutrient system through effective soil management, I'm in a rough spot. I've got to build our fertility from the ground up, and to do that, I've got to utilize effective composting.

The kitchen produces at least two five gallons buckets of vegetable waste and eggshells a day. It's free and easy fertilizer. Because all of our supplies have to come from the mainland and all of our trash has to go back, taking food scraps out of that cycle also saves labor and space on the boat.

Composting is easy. If you pile up enough organic matter and walk away from it, eventually it will break down. The trick is having it break down on your schedule--and avoiding stinkiness. There are a lot of good books that guide you through this. Let It Rot, for example, seems to exhaust the subject. However, one of the major lessons I've learned here on Cumberland is that most gardening and agricultural information normally does not take into account the heat extremes that we in the South deal with. Especially closer to the coast, I think folks can expect their compost piles to break down faster than the usual timetable. Simply, the greener stuff, rich in nitrogen, just burns up due to the heat of the sun, particularly in the hotter months, bypassing the natural living process of decay you're trying to achieve. It can burn so rapidly that you might not have any compost at all.

Cumberland Island has so little organic matter because it just disintegrates between the heat of the sun and the heat of the silica and iron particles on the ground. The temperature where organic matter burns faster than it can be produced is somewhere around 90 degrees. I spend most of my time here barefoot, but by 10:30 a.m. in the summer months, walking in the garden is like walking over hot coals. If left fully exposed to the sun, food waste piled up straight out of the kitchen will disappear completely in a week or two, before beneficial bacteria have a chance to refine it. Just gone, only a small pile of sand in its place.

If you're composting in the South, especially in the summer, I have two recommendations.

  1. Try to avoid placing a compost pile in direct sunlight. Partial shade is the way to go, and even then, it might be worth covering the pile with something porous like landscaping fabric. Remember the natural system you're trying to emulate is the forest floor, where constant direct sunlight rarely occurs, and there's an even jumble of high carbon material, like twigs and leaves, and high nitrogen material, such as dead plants and animal and insect bodies. If there are no other options and you simply must put the pile in the sun, certainly cover it. Understand it will take a lot more material to convert it into usable compost. Consider adding more layers of newspaper or other thin carbon materials than usually recommended in order to moderate the heat and slow down the burning process. Also, keep in mind that the organic matter may burn up at a temperature lower than the one that good piles with active microbial populations tend to reach (around 160, when the thermophiles get going). That's a problem for me because squash seeds can persist and germinate in the field or in the pile where they're feeding off the nutrient medium I've been trying to create. It might also mean that you have some lingering issues from harmful bacteria if you're composting diseased plants from the garden. We don't have disease problems in the garden at Greyfield, so I don't worry about this. But be mindful.
  2. I think you can make good, usable compost even in the direct sun if you pay attention to the pile closely, you turn it regularly, you keep it moist, and--like other compost piles--you make sure to introduce a healthy bacterial population by adding a shovelful of manure or older compost or even topsoil (you can also help the bacteria get going by adding a little nitrogen-heavy fertilizer; there are some organic fertilizer varieties on the market that claim to contain beneficial bacteria in their mix). However, this last bit is labor intensive, and unless you're getting paid, probably not worth the time and effort.

Some other notes about compost based on my experience here:

  • As I said, almost everything that I need has to be bought and brought over on our passenger boat. Logistics are difficult. Carrying things on and off a boat sucks. Consequently, I make my own seed-starting mix using coffee grounds and scoopful of sand, the kind that's pure and white near the dunes. The coffee grounds have some basic nutrients, hold water, and give the mix structure. The sand also has some basic nutritive elements, such as calcium, and prevents the coffee grounds from being compacted. If I have enough of it, I will also churn coffee grounds, which are acidic, into the soil solution around a transplant in order to offset momentarily our alkaline soil.
  • Even with our electric fence around the garden, I cannot keep raccoons out of the compost piles. They love melons. Who doesn't?
  • Don't be afraid of soldier fly larvae or other creepy-crawlies. They're doing exactly what you want them to do.
  • Worms! Get them, love them. No compost pile ever had too many.
  • Last but not least, yes, we have wild horses roaming around. Yes, they poop all over the place. But there's poop and there's poop. And this is not good poop. There is so little to eat on this island, especially in the way of protein, that the horse manure is practically worthless. The horses spend most of the day eating Spanish moss or nibbling on aquatic plants in the marsh. They're covered in cacti and carry a load of sand in their gut they cannot expel. They're so riddled with internal parasites and bereft of healthy bacterial populations in their gut, their droppings can take forever to break down. It's great to have them around, don't get me wrong. But they don't play into our fertility system.





What compost tips do you have to share?  Leave them here in the comments section--just click on "comments" at the top of this post.  Or, use the comments section for more questions for Donn, or contact him directly at Donn@farmersouth.com.

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