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Urban Gardener: Compost Complexities

Saturday, January 18, 2014

 

Bold gardeners bundle up. We patrol our patches. Our neighborhoods testify to laconic fortitude and endurance. New Englanders are resilient gardeners and find many satisfactions from their gardens during what the uninitiated would consider utterly hostile to any growth. The key is to understand that urban gardening is not only intensely cerebral but also and adventure into that further realm, the space where science, myth and compelling interest intersect and become adventure. Let’s have some fun with the perpetual nexus of the garden, the modest compost heap.

Who hasn’t shuttered at the often quoted fact that our meals have traveled 1,500 miles to reach our plates? Countless nutrients do not survive their journey to our dinner. All nutrients decline swiftly after harvest. Taste and flavor are likewise affected. Appearance is often good as food marketers apply vast sums towards breeding our food sources towards popular conceptions of appeal. Round red tomatoes or apples and virtually all other cultivated foods. Some have become, like corn, completely dependent upon human assistance to proceed from generation to generation. Urban gardeners trump this system as they grow their own food, often taking the time and gardener’s fascination, to explore an ancient world.

How does someone in a lot cleared away from a burned shell, a former industrial site, former parking lots, or the many vacant lots pioneered in our city successfully grow the plants of their homelands, the mainstays of traditional diets or those varieties that don’t have Olympic good looks but possess truly divine taste? Gardening is a mandala both above and beneath the surface. Let’s take a look beneath the surface.

Centuries of use have often altered native soils if not repeatedly built over. A chemical stew from petrochemicals dyes from our heyday as a textile center and the toxic metallurgy associated with giants in American metal works such as Gorham silver or Brown & Sharpe were all here. There are swathes of so called “brown fields” in New England towns. There is a way to garden our way back to health and prosperity if we restore the soils to the robust life affirming humus containing large amounts of organic material. The irony of urban life is that our society generates much organic material close at hand to every gardener. The application, making and use of compost is an effective method of re-directing organic elements from the land fill into our garden patches. Common sense and a bit of the rebel are good skill sets for the urban gardener.

Best composting practices

What are best practices for compost? First, take a long slow look at things; I consider good soil free from ownership. Many community gardens thrive many years as successive gardeners take custody of their plot. Soil contains organisms that increase exponentially in ratio to the amount of organic material that comprises the carbon based parts of soil. Gardeners add organic materials which are in constant transition from complex to simpler organization. This cool process liberates nutrients to plant roots and as the plants grow their healthier parts become our tasty nourishment. Cold indeed is the heart that doesn’t relish a tomato picked on a hot day and eaten right on the spot! To prepare the perfect soil for a garden is the work of a life time and yet great progress can be made in short times with the worthy compost heap.

There are schemes for compost heaps for each gardener. I keep it simple: the soil is always covered, everywhere with a mulch. My compost heaps move around the garden and usually start out in September with a pit dug into the ground. I remove most of the topside and lay it aside. In my garden the loam gives over to a lovely coarse gravelly sand with no trace of organic matter. The good news is that gardeners have raised fine crops in improved sandy soils, the Netherlands being a world famous example. Once I’ve dug down up to a foot, I start to fill in with organic materials. Anything biodegradable is eligible except for meats and prepared foods that attract pestilential rodents , feral cats, and scavengers that have adapted quite well to urban life such as skunks and raccoons. What does that leave you?

Enormous amounts of leaves, lots of shredded paper, very affordable bales of hay and manure, fun to gather seaweed and much more are available. My colleagues who enjoy fresh tomatoes each summer take a moment to toss their coffee grounds into the green covered bucket I provide. Coffee grounds originate thousands of miles away and bring elements alien and welcome to our soil. I make an effort to protect the heap from the weather by creating barriers to the prevailing northern winds. Currently I use old glass windows found on the sidewalk, 48” wide mesh wire fence and piled bales of hay to form an enclosure about 10’x10’. I make 3 or 4 layers of material although this varies from what is available or abundant. Despite constant additions the heap shrinks and is rarely frozen beyond the most exposed surface.

Earthworms are not fast at this time year. Salamanders are hibernating. However, soil organisms remain vibrant and form complex ecologies within the heap. At this time of year the compost may appear dormant. No, the soil is gathering strength, earthworms are active in my garden year round. The next 90 days will be important to gather fresh nutrients for the soil and further up the food chain, often directly from the garden to the mouth with very little effort from the gardener. We only suggest and guide nature to reach our ends. The compost heap is the gardener’s contribution to the garden despite being wrapped in a warm quilt and reading one catalog after another. Let the wind blow hard, we’re all doing our bit to make the world a better, more benign place.  

 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.

 

Related Slideshow: 10 Lighting Ideas For Your Home

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Kelly Taylor

Kelly Taylor has 15 plus years of experience in the field of interior design. She is the 2012 recipient of New England Home magazine’s “5 Under 40” award for excellence in design as well as Rhode Island Monthly magazine’s 2012 and 2013 Gold Awards for residential interior design. She practices residential and commercial interior design in Providence, Rhode Island. Find her on twitter at @ktidnet, visit her website at www.ktid.net or check her out on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/KellyTaylorInteriorDesign. " target="_blank">http:// http://www.facebook.com/KellyTaylorInteriorDesign.

 
 

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