Backyard Chickens : Ramial Woodchip Composting

So in our new home (well, we’ve been here almost three years, but still) we are keeping 9 laying hens and, as usual, I am working to upgrade the soils to what I had in the old home where I could take a garden stake and drive it in almost 1′ by hand due to the stupid rich topsoil I had built up.    I like to keep a minimum 2000 or so sq ft of ground under cultivation between the annual vege gardens and the permaculture guilded trees.  And to build up that area I add 1-2″ of compost annually, plus mulches.  That means I need 6-12 cu. YARDS of compost a year.  That’s a bit silly, even for me, so I shoot for 5 yards a year and focus on the annual beds and any new guilds and just heavily mulch the rest.

But I also travel 25-50% of the time now, and unlike my old job I just get two days off (I don’t know how people do this!) vs. the 3.5 in my old gig.   To help me hit my soil building goals and still deal with the reality of my new work-life (im)balance I stack functions onto the chicken coop and have added two composting systems to the runs.   I’ll post about my simple ‘traditional’ composting run in a bit, but today I’d like to share my Ramial Woodchip Composting run since I spent the day playing in it.

Now in any good permaculture function stack it should be difficult to tell what is the true purpose of the system- and this run qualifies in spades.  Is it a ‘no’ work Chicken Feeder?  Is it a Worm Farm?  Is it a Composting System?  YES, yes it is.    In my previous gardens, I noticed that the very best soils were often found UNDER my wood chip paths– the bottom layer of the wood chips would seemingly melt away as the worms and fungus ate away at the chips, and the compost was of exceptional quality- super light and friable due to the high lignin content of the wood chips aiding the aggregatization of the carbon. I’d harvest my paths annually- laboriously sifting and forking away, but I’d always wanted to recreate it in a more purpose built system.  And now I had my chance.

The system is pretty simple- it’s just a modification/intensification of a wood chipped chicken run.  Every 1-2 months I get a trailer load of chips (1.5 cu. yards- any family sedan can tow that) that are very fresh and from a living tree (Ramial-you’ll know it because they will be hot composting almost instantly) and pile them ~1′ thick in a small fenced in area off the chicken coop.   Ramial chips (full of green leaves and smells like sap) are important as they breakdown faster and feed the worms almost immediately- dead and dry chips take a month or two for the fungi to break them down so the worms get interested.

Nothing fancy, I just string 25′ of 24″ garden fence up around the coop door and dump the chips in a wheel barrow load at a time- the chickens will spread them out. I let this sit for 3-7 days (or until I get around to it) so they hot compost briefly and the worms start to work up in them.

Then I start to let the chickens (we have 9 dual purpose chooks- they are layers only and pets that we’d never eat) in for a few hours to all day depending on weather and if I’m around.  The birds express their ‘chicken-ness’ by scratching and pooping, and the worms express their ‘worm-ness’ by breeding like crazy and eating/pooping their weight daily.  After a week or so I start forking the chips over now and then-just a few forks here and there as I pass by which helps the chickens get into the worms, and gets the top layer of chips rotated into the worm fest.  After 4-6 weeks the pile looks like the picture above– the large chips are still there, but the ‘fines’ and all the green shredded material is basically humus and worm poo now.   That’s pretty fast, aided by the stirring and shatting of the chookens, and the close ground contact maximising worm habitat over 200 sq ft.  At this point I do one of three things depending on my needs.  I either fork the mix onto my perennial guilds as is or if I want to seperate the fines and humus from the large material I sift it.


My sifter is designed to fit over 2 recycling bins that I got at a giveaway (dead useful things, those).  If I don’t really need compost NOW, then I throw 3-4 forkfuls into the sifter every time I walk past and the chicken happily jump in to scratch and eat out all the worms.  The fines fall through the screen (3/8″ hardware cloth) And I dump the large pieces back out or into a bucket to add to a fruit tree guild- takes 5 minutes 2x a day.  Or If I really need compost- I do it myself with a fork.  I can get 2-3 wheel barrow loads of sifted compost this way every 2 months.


Meanwhile, the chickens get 25-100% (depending on where in the chip cycle I am- the worms take time to breed up) their protein needs from the worms and macro soil fauna they get from scratching in the chips.  Plus I get tons of high carbon compost (10-15 7 cu ft barrow loads per year) and all the chip mulch I need.

This compost is quite heavy on the Carbon end- PERFECT mixed with forest soil for starting trees and as fall applications in the vege gardens, but it will starve annuals of nitrogen if added in in the Spring or Summer.  So in that time frame, I either stockpile it, or more typically use it as a Carbon layer in my hot composting for seedy greens that need to be nuked (vs just run through the main chicken composting run). Weeds tend to get away from me with my travel schedule so I always seem to need to do a ‘hospital compost pile’ in late June.


And it works perfect for that- above is a 1 cu yard pile of Canda Thistle (GODS do I hate them) shredded -yes that’s an obscene amount of thistle-and mixed .5″ of Ramial compost to 3-4″ layer of thistle shreddings.

I am quite fond of this set up as it spreads the work over time- Other than the day I load/unload the trailer, the system never takes more than ~10 minutes a day several days a week and provides the chickens with a great source of animal protein, and keeps them entertained.  Our egg production goes up a bit when we have them on this system and we seem to have even oranger yolks.  Plus we always have hundreds of easily found worms for fishing or to prime a sheet mulch.

Simple, multi function, and labor saving with mega outputs of fertility and food.

Be the Change.

-Rob

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Pit and Mound Gardening

Hang out in sustainability circles for any length of time and you will notice a distinct antipathy towards traditional vegetable gardening. It ruins the soil; it is dependent on inputs; it eschews perrenial plants. It is un-natural. And in most cases that is all true.  But there are some real truths that this attitude can gloss over.  First, annual vegetable gardens are wicked productive – easily a pound or more per sq ft.  Second, the vast majority of us are used to eating food grown in annual vegetable gardens and food habits are extremely difficult to change – they are a integral part of our living culture and that changes slowly;  I am much more likely to eat potatoes than skirret or sunchokes, no matter what the permaculture books tell me.  Third, its gonna take YEARS for your multi story permaculture forest garden to start producing much of anything.  For certain, eventually it will outpace your annual gardens in productivity, but that is a decade or more out.  Until then, the 25#’s of harvest per tomato plant is gonna make you and your larder a lot happier.

So whats a suburban homesteader to do?  I’ve read thousands of pages on sustainable vegetable gardening – fantastic books from John Jeavons, Elliot Coleman, and many more that have inspired and intrigued me to the possibilities of vegetable gardens.  I’ve also read thousands of pages on ecology and soil science that contradict so very much of what those masters and mistresses have to say; tilling is very rough on the soil.  I want to have healthy soil, but I also need and intend to have a large canning garden for years to come.  Mulch Gardening like Ruth Stout’s “No – Work” garden and Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening makes a great step towards integrating the two philosophies by removing much of the tilling.  Word to the wise though on this – Ruth Stout gardened conventionally for over 7 seasons before switching to no-till.  It takes a long time to build up your soils and you also need to irradiate persistent perennial weeds like quack/couch grass, sow thistle, and the like if you have them on site.  No till gardening is a journey, not a destination!

Bolstered by some impressive results from 2009, I mulched heavily this year and was very impressed with the reduced weed and irrigation inputs.  But the garden was still flat and that bothered me.  So at the market garden I tried a new technique that I want to explore Whole Hog in 2011.  Essentially it is based on a side bar blurb in Chapter 12 of David Blume’s epic opus Alcohol Can Be a Gas. Now a book on homebrewed energy revolutions is not a place one would expect to have an epiphany on vegetable gardening, but David is a die hard permaculturist so its all connected.  His idea was to dig trenches under your paths, fill them with mulch, and then use these mulch paths to breed up trillions of red worms to function stack a “wasted” space in the garden.  This idea worked wonders at the farm – with the beds I used this technique out producing my conventional beds by 20-50%.  As the season went on, I gave it more and more thought and always paid special attention to those two beds – digging and poking around as I tended to them.    My findings in short were these:

  • Mulched Trenches improved drainage -essentially turning the planted areas into raised beds
  • Mulched Trenches improved water retention – the mulch acted like a sponge, holding water for weeks and weeks between rains keeping a higher water table within reach of the annuals
  • As hoped, Mulched Trenches foster just ridiculous amounts of fungus.  My hope was that even with the soil intrusion in the beds from potato harvest the fungus would live on in the paths to re-innoculate the soil for the next season.  The mycelium was often inches thick and brilliant white to the naked eye.  Bingo!
  • Thanks to the moisture and fungus, the Mulched Trenches are havens for earthworms, even if you don’t plant worms in them, they will be there soon enough.
  • Within only 3 months, a 1/8″ (3 mm) layer of humus formed under the straw that mulched the potatoes and was clearly evident to the naked eye when harvesting.  That is very impressive soil building in such a short time.  Now, this was on incredibly microbially rich soil that has been farmed organically for 20 years so your results may vary, but it is no wonder why straw mulch gardening works.  You are truly “uppening” your soils!

All of this really coalesced with the epiphany that  my Mulched Trenches essentially mimic “pit and mound” topography in old growth forests and were creating all kinds of interesting micro climates for soil fauna and plant roots to exploit.  Wait a minute – the reviled and ecologically barren annual vegetable garden was starting to sound a lot like permaculture!  I was on to something.

With that in mind, I set out to integrate these learnings into my freshly “pimped out” garden as I prepped it for the 2011 season.   The layout will be a 1′ Mulched Trench on each side of 30″ growing beds.  Now that is a lot of path, and purists will give me hell for that.  Whatever!  To manage a 1100 sq ft garden, be a husband, father, and still work a full time job and do all my other projects if I can’t get into my garden easily and efficiently it will turn into a mess faster than you can say “fundamentalist”.   I plant in straight lines – it may not be efficient in space, but it is incredibly efficient in time and labor – we need to factor those things into our plans too.  Mandalas are great, but they’re not for me.  While digging the trenches the soil was piled up onto the 30″ growing beds – mimicking a “double dug” bed.  On top of this I applied .5-1″ of compost and topped that with 4″ of straw with a nod to Ruth Stout.  Here are some pics:

1' deep and about 1' wide - basically dig a trench with a spade and pile it onto your garden bed. As these paths are to be semi permanent I pulled some lines to keep me honest.

Once the trench was dug and emptied, I filled it with chips. I like to use fresh chips with leaves in it if I can - the nitrogen helps to feed the soil ecosystem. Tamp the chips well (walk on them) and mound them slightly as they settle. I aimed to keep them about level with the top of the growing beds. As the trenches are 3/4 full, rake the growing beds flat to get them back to 30" width and then top the trenches off. Figure a cu ft per running foot - these beds are 32' (9.7 m) long so it takes over a cu yard each.

After the growing beds are raked flat, I put down a .5" (13mm) layer of compost which is enough to cover the soil. More is better, but the most important thing is to inoculate the bed with soil bacteria which will munch slowly on the straw all winter and add some humus.

At this point the beds are built and the straw is laid down.  That is all pretty straight forward.  But before I sign off I would like to show some examples of just WHY this is so important:

This was from one of the chipped paths from this summer's garden. These chips were only 4 months old - just LOOK at that fungal growth!

This is also  my answer to any concerns about “locking up nitrogen” by adding this much carbon to the soil.  The fungus is working like crazy to break it down, plus the soil in the growing beds is normal and the nitrogen concerns will only be in the paths or just next to them.  And once the plant roots start exchanging sugars with the path fungus the soil economy will go bonkers to the benefit of your pantry through increased yields.  Just so you understand that this wasn’t an isolated  shot her are some more pics — all from the same row!

Almost 4" thick - the fungal net was already reaching well below the chip layer. Again - this is 4 months or less of growth!

These fungal nets capture nutrients and water reducing leaching and feed worms (see him?) and other soil fauna. Fantastic!

I am an unabashed Soil Geek, but these discoveries had me beside myself, jumping, hollering, and dragging my wife and kids out to see the bounty growing under my paths. Wow.

So there it is, my Pit and Mound gardening method.  Essentially I am taking straw mulch gardening -the tomatoes and other big plants will grow right into this mulch- and taking it up a notch with a healthy dose of soil ecology by fostering fungus, worms and all their buddies in the “permanent” paths.  This also reduces labor by increasing the gardens ability to self irrigate by essentially creating contour swales next to each bed.

Time will tell how much of an impact this will have.  But I do know that some of the best soils on my property are found UNDER my wood chip paths, humus is formed from carbon after all.  Any question about the efficacy of fungus to make soils is erased by going out to a nearby woods and rummaging under the leaves – its amazing.  In addition to the paths, the growing beds now more precisely mimic a natural soil structure – beneath my garden is the sub soil, then a foot of top soil, the the “duff” layer of partially decomposed material in the compost I applied, and topped with raw organic matter in the mulch.  EXACTLY the same strata you will see in a prairie or forest.   Its still a veggie bed, but we’re a helluva lot closer to building more sustaining system as it holds water, suppresses weeds, and builds soil and soil ecosystems.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Pimp My Garden: Fall Season Prep

‘Tis fall, the Season of the Soil!  With the shorter days, and frosts in Wisconsin Nature is dropping its leaves to blanket the soil and begin to build the humus necessary to protect the future of it’s ecosystems.  Mom Nature really knows her shit, and we should listen; if Mom is covering her soil, we prolly should too.   Several billion years of evolution are talkin ya know?  This will detail how I am prepping the beds in our annual gardens this year.  These are the beds I built in June and the majority of the soil was trucked in – it needs some healing.  And you know my answer for healing the soil: compost and organic matter.

First up is to strip the organic matter off the top, shred it, and compost it.

In future  years I may skip the composting, but we still had a bunch of weeds so off to the Hot Composting it goes.  Once the beds were clear it was time to add some medicine – comfrey!  I have about 6 dozen Russian comfrey plants on property cloned off 2 plants I bought 4 years ago.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, full on minerals and excellent food for soil microbes.  Here is a shot of my a bit of my comfrey “coppice”, a double row along a 80′ fence line.

The comfrey is hacked done with a sickle and laid out on the beds.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, but it can also resprout occasionally.  To prevent this do two things – compost when you cut it when its flowering (if you have viable seed like me), and also when using it as mulch, don’t cut the fronds too close to the ground to prevent any chance of re-rooting from any root chunks.  Still, you will likely get some volunteers over the years.  In the permie beds I encourage this.  In the veg garden, not so much.   That imposed order is not natural, but its there.  Smother any that come up with a mini sheet mulch.

A layer twice this thick could also be used, but much thicker than that and I would be concerned with  it going anaerobic under the mulch.  Next up I spread nearly finished compost.  Actually this is as finished as most of my compost gets unless I am making potting mix; I prefer to leave some un-decomposed organic matter for the microbes to breed on in place.  Look at the color difference!  In very general terms, the darker the soil the higher the organic matter content.  Humus is black.

This is what about .5" of compost (on average) looks like.

I had about 1/2 of a yard of compost left for the three beds I was prepping.  Dividing it out works to about .6 inches on average.  I would prefer more, but with the mulch breaking down all Fall/Winter/Spring I will add another .5″ over time.  Final step is to “tuck them in” as Nature intended.  In this case its a 4″ (once settled) of well rotted straw that served all summer as the walls of the Methane Midden.

Makin Ruth Stout proud.

Not quite done.  Need to fill the 1′ paths back in with new wood chips.  Why?  Because choosing to use wood chips on the path was brilliant.  It prevents compaction by spreading the load of walking, but it also holds moisture, and breeds soil fungus like crazy, lots of mycelium after only 4 months.  Outstanding!

Notice that none of the beds were turned, nor do I  plan to turn it in the spring either.  Yep – going no till baby!  And from a guy with a $4000 rototiller that is saying a lot!  A surface hoeing with a 7″ scuffle hoe was done to clear the debris.  Once the debris was clear I could see dozens of holes from the deep tilling earthworms.  The straw and compost layers mimic natural soil strata: topsoil-> humus -> duff-> mulch.

No till it is.

2011 is going to be awesome!

-Rob

Be the Change.

Bio-Char Composting

So I’ve written about Bio-Char before – its the essentially pure carbon that is left over from burning wood in the absence of oxygen.  We make some while running our gasifiers and its a prime component in Terra Preta – the incredibly fertile soils found in bits of the Amazon.  It has also been in the eco-news a ton lately as a means of carbon sequestration.  There have even been some low tech trials (low tech are my favorite!) using it as a soil amendment.  What those trials have found is what I had suspected: that while long term fertility potential is increased due to the addition of carbon to the soil, all those free ionic bonds “fix” nitrogen out from the soil and initial fertility is lessened for a year or more.  The trail found that by saturating the bio-char first (in this case with human urine) the results on harvest were substantial.  I have dreamed of using bio-char from our gasifiers as a final filter in a aquaponics system – not only to clean the water, but as importantly to “pre-charge” the bio-char with nutrients for its use as a fertilizer.  Since I don’t have my aquaponic greenhouse yet, and my suburbanite neighbors wouldn’t take to kindly to me pissing in a bucket each morning in the backyard, I decided to use my compost bins as the nutrient source.

Compost bins leach out a significant amount of nutrients -either through runoff, or through ammonia gas.  My thought is that by mixing biochar into a pile, I would precharge the char, and the end result would be an even better soil amendment.  So, putting action to thought as is my wont – here is what I did this afternoon:

35#'s of hardwood charcoal from Whole Foods. $28 and likely a better use than grilling steaks.

We don’t have access to our own charcoal yet (next year I may make my own charcoal maker), so Whole Foods helped me out with an end of season sale.

Next I needed some material.  As I wrote about yesterday – that is no problem anymore.  400# of willow coming right up!

2 days old and free. The things people throw away these days!

Finally, I ran the willow and the charcoal through the chipper.  The thought was to make the char into itty bitty bits to increase surface area.  I figured dust would be an issue, but DAMN is dust an issue!  Carbon dust is quite dangerous – rather explosive and wicked rough on your lungs.  I had a dust mask on, and mixing the charcoal in with the leafy fronds helped, but soaking the char first might be better.  Its an issue, and you’ve been warned.  Here is the results:

Always amazing how much it reduces in volume once its chipped. Plan on soaking this a lot - that char is DRY.

The plan for this bin is to fill a raised bed for a side by side run next year.  My hypothesis is that the compost char will increase the fertility potential of the soil by preventing leaching and raising the overall carbon content of the soil significantly.  Bacteria LOVE to live on the incredibly rich surface structures of char particles, so soil life should explode.  This will hopefully be a major component of my pushing for 10# ‘ sq ft in some raised beds next year.

It will be interesting to see if the added char will affect the composting process at all.  It may inhibit it due to the char sucking up nutrients.  I have a good idea of the process with 4 brush piles in the works, so it should be readily apparent if more nitrogen is needed in a charified pile.

Much more to come!

-Rob

Brush Composting – 5 wks to Humus

So this summer I went Compost Crazy.  First with the Midden and its ongoing Epic Insanity, and then once I saw the power of shredded brush composting, I starting going ape shit with my chipper.  Over the past 1.5 months I have cut or scrounged over 5000#’s of brush, run it through my chipper / shredder and all but filled my Compost Bin of Dreams.  In fact, I am one trip away from it being maxed out which is about 5.5 yards of compost.  Dang sucka.  Of note, I have yet to start my third gallon of  gas.  The Bio-80’s 5hp Briggs is frugal.

I have good reason for my madness.  Shredding weeds and very brushy material makes SYCK compost – and it does so incredibly fast.  The batch of lambsquarter I ran through on July 29?  Yeah – its DONE.  Not “yeah, I can *probably* spread this.” done.  Its DONE.  And its not only the speed on the decomposition end – its on the sourcing end.  One of the problems with home composting is it takes all year to get material to fill a bin, then another 3-4 months to cook it down.  Thats a year or more.  I don’t have time for that given the harvest goals for my place and the resulting soil building needs.  With my Chipper, I now cruise the municipal yard like a crack addict looking for fresh cut shrubs or prunings on an almost weekly basis.   I can take 2 loads from the yard to my house and shred them in less than 3 hours, and 2 loads will get me about 1.75 yards or chips (800#’s) which will cook down to about .8-1 cu yard.  3 hours of work and a fraction of a gallon of fuel for 600#s of humus.  I’ll take it!  Here are some shots of the process in action – the Week 3 shot didn’t turn out, but I will add one tomorrow.

It all starts with shredded material – this is what 350#’s of willow looks like after the Bio-80 has its way:

Small particle size is crucial. LOTS of green material as well. This is soaking in 20 gallons of water overnight to raise water content.

It takes 2 loads of with the trailer to fill a bin, about 8-900#’s of brush.  Here is what it looks like after 2 weeks – remember that this will be 165 degrees with in 24-36 hours and stay over 140 for 14 days.  This system is stunning.

Woody chunks still visible, but greens are all gooey. The woody bits in the middle are well on their way to humus. This will heat again to 150, and fall to 120 over the next 2 weeks. Add water if needed, but if you soaked it well, it should be fine.

Again, Wk 3-4 pic was a flop, but will add one soon.

Here is a shot of the lambsquarter : box elder pile after 5 weeks.  This is the fastest I have ever seen compost created, and on par with the commercial operations with mechanical turners.

Done. The clumping is due to moisture - this pile is sopping wet due to rain. There is virtually no identifiable raw material left other than some box elder twigs. 5 weeks!

Now, the lambsquarter pile is likely going to outperform the other 3 piles in the bins right now due to the fact that it was primarily annuals with much less cellulose and lignin to break down – it also shrank almost 50% for that reason. This pile was also so nitrogen rich that it hit 178 degrees in early August – that is just silly and literally destructive to the microbes in the piles – at that temp you are cooking your hibernating mezophillic bacteria which is NOT a good thing.

I am very curious to see what the pure brush piles look like in 1.5 months, but they aren’t tracking too far behind.  This pile can be recreated with sun choke stalks, cupplant, as well green sweet corn or sunflower stalks – but again – it takes ALOT – 800-1000#’s per pile since green material has so much water in it.

But the results speak for themselves.  With my new setup I can have 2-3 cu yards over winter to be spread in the spring for my early plantings, and start new piles in April.  By June I should be able to spread another 1″ of compost over the beds before the Heavy Feeders go in, and then another 1″ after they come out.  It should be possible to run 3+ batches through the Compost Bins netting up to 15 cu yards of compost – in theory, enough to cover my 1000 sq ft annual bed 5 times to a depth of an inch.  Of course the permaculture beds, insectary plantings  and coppice mini- groves will get their share too.  With this much humus hitting the soils of the system, organic matter will skyrocket along with yields.

And the icing on the cake?  15 cu yards of compost (humus) will sequester about 4 tons of carbon each year as well.  Not bad at all.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Carbon “Fixing” Plants

Most gardeners are aware of “nitrogen fixing” plants; those plants, typically legumes, that have formed symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria to take airborne nitrogen and fix it into water-soluble form.  As far back as the Romans, humans have fostered this natural occurrence to increase yields and increase fertility.  What we hear about much less is carbon “fixing” plants – in Permaculture speak – biomass or mulching plants.  In the past year, as I have learned more and more about soil ecosystems, I have become far more convinced that these “carbon fixers” are even more important in early successions as we heal our suburban ecosystems.

I have developed a mantra over the summer as I have worked to sloganize what it is that we are doing.  The result has been my oft-repeated imperative to: Heal the Soil, Store the Water, & Plant Useful Plants.  In a nutshell it is a roadmap to maximize the potential of any garden space – if the soil is alive it has more nutrients cycling in it, if the soil has sufficient water stored under mulches and in humus then  the potential increases again.  And once these two are in place, one can maximize the solar potential by filling in the canopy.  Of these, I feel the first is the most important as it makes the others possible.  And to heal the soil, you need carbon (organic matter).

Plants are truly the conduits of energy into the earth – by capturing solar energy and turning it into simple sugar they supply the foundation for 99.99% of all life on the planet, whether it is through root exudates in the rhizosphere or nectar through their flowers, plants make life possible.  But life also needs carbon, and most life on the planet gets its carbon from plants in the form of organic matter – the main food source of the bacteria and fungus in the soil.  But some plants do this better than others.

There are the grasses with their dense root systems that build soil visibly every year, and there are trees that cover the ground in a thick blanket of leaves every year.  Finally there are other plants that form stalks and stems that form significant amounts of soil as well – the tall grass prairies, corn/sunflower stalks, and windblown branches from softwoods such as willows, sycamores, and poplar.  What these have in common is tough, long carbon chains in their cell structure that resists decomposition.  This resistance to decomposition -in lignin, cellulose, etc-  is what forms humus.  And it is humus that forms rich soils.   This is something to be very mindful of as we mulch our gardens.

If you were to build a compost pile of nothing but greens, with only the barest amounts of “browns”, the pile would heat up very quickly, but would decompose down to almost nothing – 75-90% of the bulk would be gone.  That is because greens lack cellulose and lignin and are mostly water and nutrients – vital to soil life, but almost completely consumed in the decomposition process.  Compare this to a similar sized pile of shredded leaves.  It will take 4x as long to decompose, but the result will be 400% more humus with only a 25% reduction in size.

In most of my permaculture guilds I have stressed the green mulches of comfrey, sorrels, chives, etc to pull and cycle nutrients, and for several years I have imported my cellulose and lignin in the form of dozens of yards of wood chips.  Now that my gardens are maturing, I am starting to pay more attention to including plants specifically to “fix” carbon to maintain soil humus levels.  In the 6 years I have lived here I have lost about 1-2″ of total height in our 3 oldest perennial beds compared to the sod.  That is because the humus in the perennial beds is degrading over time, while the roots of the fescues in the lawn are forming .25″ of humus a year.  I had not been mulching these beds much as they have almost completely closed “canopies” of thyme ground cover that I didn’t want to smother.  I will try mulching more aggressively this year.

While all my guilds include nitrogen fixers such as leadplant, false indigos, New Jersey Tea, Serviceberry, etc and green “mulch” plants such as Russian Comfrey, I am beginning to either add in “carbon fixers” and am planting guilds specifically to grow brown mulches.  Some of this I am accomplishing by letting box elder seedling mature in my guilds as they sprout in the wood chip mulch.  In one spot, I have planted a 20 tree “short rotation coppice guild” of willows, poplar, and box elders.  In my annual gardens I am taking much inspiration from John Jeavons and planting “stalky” plants such as corn, sorghum, and sunflowers specifically to produce compost carbon in addition to edibles.  Once you change your mindset it isn’t overly hard.  Of course, having a chipper to use can become important as well – though many plants such as sunchokes, and weeping willows produce stalks and “leaf” mulches that are laid down without chipping and fast growing trees such as Empress and Sycamore have HUGE leaves that really add up.

As my gardens have matured, and I seek to support the soils I have built using primarily the inputs of my site, I find myself planting more and more of these carbon trees to grow my soil.  In doing so I help to maximize the potential of my site by using these fast growing plants to sequester carbon to build the soils beneath my edibles, while also pulling carbon from the air to heal our climate.

Prime Short Rotation Coppice Trees:

Willow, Hybrid Poplar, Black Locust, Box Elder, Empress, Sycamore, Ash, Hazelnut, most Standard fruit trees (annually pruned)

Prime “Carbon Fixing” Annuals/perennials:

Sunflower, Corn, Sorghum, Cupplant, Sunchoke, Small Grains, Amaranth, Quinoa, etc.

Many of these trees are useful in many other regards – Black Locust is a nitrogen fixer, provides rot resistant wood, and its flowers are a great early nectar source.  Black Maul willow is one of the most striking plants I have ever seen and the new growth makes incredible baskets.  Hazelnuts and Sunflowers are some of the best ways to grow healthy fats in the northern hemisphere.  Carbon gardening is by no means boring or a wasted effort!

Productive soils need to have all their nutrients cycled, not only the water soluble ones, but also carbon to replenish that which is lost due during the respiration of the soil organisms.  If we are to truly garden in the spirit of nature, we need to make sure that the carbon is replaced with the same diligence that we give nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and the 96 other macro and micro nutrients.

-Rob

“Professional” Composting

160 degrees within 24 hours. This system WORKS.

I make a lot of compost.  I would say I make a ton of compost, but in reality I make *several* tons.  Every year.  At home.  In the ‘burbs.  If you want to follow the path of Gaia’s Garden – you almost certainly need immense amounts of organic matter.  We live in a newer subdivision so without mature trees we have to get creative to get our biomass for composting.  In years past I resorted to tapping into local waste streams, namely our local coffee shop to the tune of 30 gallons of grounds and sandwich trimmings every week.  That volume eventually inspired me to build my Compost Bin of Dreams to handle it.  The gorp from the shop was good, though it was heavy and was difficult to aerate.  To our horror that shop closed down this past Spring due to the recession and we lost a significant element in our local community.  It was an awful tragedy to the owners, whom we knew.  As time went on and the grieving passed, and I realized I needed to find another source for compost material.  I had also recently bought a chipper and learned the joys of brush wood composting. Here is my new system which allows me to make up to 15 yards a year:

Materials

To compost at this scale – 5-10 yards a year – you need a lot of material.  You can count on a 75% reduction in weight due to loss of water and half the carbon in the decomposition process.  A yard of compost weighs in at 540#’s or so – so you need literally tons and tons of material.  That means you need to get it for free.  With my local grounds dried up, I turned to other waste streams, in this case brush and wood chips from our local municipal yard (and local farms when we clean up the hedgerows) as well as weeds from fallow feeds at the farm.  Personal favorites from our local / free waste stream:

  • Box Elder
  • Willow
  • Lambsquarter
  • Ragweed
  • Corn/Sunflower Stalks
  • Straw after fall decorations

There is not many food scraps in here, though we continue to add ours and I kick in lawn clippings as needed to fire up a pile.  I certainly could be pounding the pavement of the local grocers and restaurants, but have chosen not to.  First, that would again lock me into a pickup schedule and I am getting waaaay too busy.  Second, the waste streams from those outlets are almost pure nitrogen and if aren’t picked up daily turn into a stinky, anaerobic mess when I get them.  I have pushed my neighbors quite a bit this past year, so want to keep this recent uptick in activity pleasant.  Sourcing my own brushwood and weeds keeps me in control.

Tools

5'x8' w/ 1 ton axle. Arguably my most useful tool. Dead serious.

Trailer: To carry all this material you need something rather large, but I not necessarily a truck.  I do all of this with my 90hp TDI Golf and a 5×8 trailer from Farm and Fleet I bought 3 years ago for $700.   Trailers are useful as they are MUCH lower to the ground to make unloading/unloading easier than a truck, and you only use it when you need it.  I get 48 mpg on my Golf without the trailer.  With it loaded I take a 20% mileage hit and a bit of wear and tear on the brakes.  I also upgraded the suspension with higher spring rates when I needed to replace them, but that is cause I am weird.  Even with all of that it still beats the hell out of 15mpg in a 1/2 ton truck.

Chipper- I resisted this for years, but finally caved.  My chipper is a Bio – 80 from BCS and I got it used for $550.  They are very hard to find and would cost over $1000 new.  Alternatives would be a 3″ model from DR or Bearcat, but again – be ready for sticker shock as they are EXPENSIVE.  Luckily, they can be found on Ebay, and more rarely on Craiglist.  Avoid the “craftsmans” type ones like the plague.  They are underpowered, poorly designed, and worse than useless.  This is also why you see them on Craiglist by the dozen.  This is almost commercial level work, and you need Real Tools.  The rub: To compost brush, you need a chipper, and chippers use fuel.  Mine is averaging less than a gallon for every 7-8 hours of run time, which is more frugal than a typical gas lawn mower, which I haven’t used for more than 8 years.  A larger pto model could work on a tractor running on methane, ethanol, or homemade bio-deisel.  This Briggs could run on ethanol as well.  Methane too, but it would be a bit harder to put the tank somewhere.

Bins –  I wrote this up in detail in my Compost Bin of Dreams.  I have a 4 bin system that can handle over 2000#;s of material at a time.  It is a flow through system – start on the left and turn each bin to the right.  When the 3 turnings are done, most of the compost is ready. When I compost sod, or other marginal material, it usually isn’t done so it goes into my 30 cu ft outdoor vermi-composter for “finishing”.

Each bin is 40" cubed -Combined it will hold 5.5 yards.

Process

This is the real beauty of this system.  You read any book on composting and they say if you really want an ideal pile you need to gather the materials before hand.   But, since that is nearly impossible, they then tell you about how you can compost your lawn clippings (2-3 cu ft at a cutting at my house) kitchen scraps (half a cu ft), soiled napkins etc.  Most homeowners will never fill a bin even after a year unless they have mature trees to add the leaves in.  Given the amount of organic matter we need to put back into our soils we need to do far better than that.

1) Gather your materials I ask you to refer again to the picture of the loaded trailer earlier in the post.  This pile chipped up to about 37 cu ft of material.  That will settle to about a yard, maybe a bit less.  What you can’t see in the picture is that it is not ALL brush.  The top 3/4 is willow, maple, and pine.  This is the carbon for the pile.  I try to only use green brush as I want the moisture, sugary sap, and nitrogen from the leaves.  Green brush still has all the water soluble nutrients in it – and you want those in your compost to feed the microbes which then feed your plants.  Under the compost is about 300#’s of fresh cut, mature (6′-9′ tall) lambsquarter.   It is also just getting ready to set seed.  Normally adding several million weed seeds to a pile would be asinine, but reference the compost thermometer on the top – these piles get wicked hot and stay over 130 degrees for over 2 weeks solid.  They should kill the weed seeds, and lambsquarter when young is a tasty treat whilst weeding and it weeds easily.   Brush bulk is deceiving – that huge pile is barley 8 cu ft chipped, so I also added .3 yards of wood chips from the city pile to be shredded to offset the nitrogen of the lambsquarter and help build humus.  Remember it is lignin and cellulose that build humus, and for that you need woody material like leaves, straw or twigs.

Entropy Once the materials are on site, limb the larger brush with a loppers or axe to ensure easy chipping.  Do this before you fire up the chipper to save on fuel.  I typically start with the brush as its close to perfect on the C:N ratio if its real leafy.   I chip the trunks until the stem is under 3/4″ and then I shred the rest.  As I go I keep an eye on the discharge – if its too brown I add more green material; the mixing starts this early.  Once the brush is done I then move to the green weeds.  These clog even my chipper very quickly.  Luckily my shredder has a removable debris screen.  By opening the screen it is able to shoot out the material after beating on it for a bit.  I like the lambsquarter as it is long enough that I can hold onto the stalks as I feed it – otherwise the shredding blades can pull it through too fast.  If something comes out unprocessed I refeed it later. Every cu ft of material or so, I close the debris screen again and add the wood chips.  This clogs the machine every time, so I keep a tamping stick like a 3′ chunk of 2×4 or 4″ limb thats too big for the chipper to encourage the material to enter the shredder.  This is the slowest part, but oh so worth it since the shredded wood chips are very fine and decompose very quickly for a carbon.  GORGEOUS humus.

300#'s of lambsquarter all chopped up. Add browns 1:1 with this.

Building the Piles.

As the material builds up from the chipping I add it to my 10 cu ft wheel barrow.  Half way through I pour in a 5 gallon bucket of rainwater from a rain barrel, and add another when the barrow is full.  This is vitally important.  As Jean Pain taught us – brush needs A LOT of water to decompose well.  Using rainwater is important for two reasons.  First, rainwater is free from the chlorine present in municipal water which would inhibit bacterial growth for a day or more.  Secondly, rainbarrel water is bacterially active.  It is churning with colonies of bacteria and fungal spores and almost certainly helps jumpstart the pile.  Each heaping barrow load (13 cu ft) gets 10 gallons of water – so I end up with 30 gallons of water added to each bin.  Actually, composting is the prime us of my rainbarrel water, as once the compost is in the soil, I barely need to irrigate! I might try soaking the material as Jean Pain did, but this process goes so fast it doesn’t seem necessary.  As I add the material to the barrow I continue to eyeball the mixture and scoop up greener or browner forkfuls as I go to mix it well.  The end goal is a perfectly mixed and soaked pile from Day 1. Finished piles should look like this:

Look at the mixture and the particle size. It should be wet enough to feel like a damp sponge.

Pile the piles as tall as possible as they settle significantly.  I lightly tamp the piles with the fork as I fill them, especially around the edges where the friction on the sides resists settling.  My bins hold 1.3 yards and I mound them 18″ over the top.  If you don’t have enough material it doesn’t seem to matter if you add to it in a week or so, just know that that material will need an additional week to decompose.

A compost thermometer is vital to this process.  The piles heat up almost immediately – the temp shot at the beginning I took this morning I the pile I built yesterday – about 15 hours ago.  DANG.  160 is the highest you should let the piles get.  The first one of these I built hit 173 – that is far too hot and at the point of concern that it may begin spontaneously combusting like a hay barn.  To slow it down I have added more carbon to the mix.  Watch the pile temp almost daily – as it drops below 125, turn it again, and add more water.  This time is may only hit 140, wait a bit until it drops to 115 or so and then turn it a third time.  The 3rd turning should  be done at about 105 degrees, but at this point you are almost done, and the pile should be left to “mellow”.  This can take months, so I typically put some in my vermicomposter and spread the rest as mulch which I top dress with some straw in the veggie garden, or wood chips in the permaculture beds.  The microbes will continue munching on it in place.

Conclusion

This system is not for everyone.  It takes serious equipment and a serious intent.  I have almost $2000 invested: $600 for the chipper, $700 for the trailer, $500 in the bin.  And that is using used equipment.

But the results!  By spending the extra investment on the front end in material sourcing and prep you are able to take waste brush and turn it into compost in 3-5 weeks.  That means at a 4 week average and my 4 bin system I can reasonably do 15 yards of finished compost in a 6 month composting season.  In reality some batches will take longer, but I also compost more like 9 months of the year.  15 yards is 4 tons of finished compost and enough to spread 5000 sq ft 1″ thick.  To do this I would need a trailer load of material a week for 24 weeks – about 12 tons of raw material.  It will take alot of organic matter to rebuild our soils, and the 8000 pounds of compost I could put back into my yard is roughly 4 tons of carbon that isn’t in the atmosphere anymore and will continue to sequester more as it aids the growth of the plants in my gardens.

Hopefully this system will help you in your quest to rebuild your soils and sequester carbon naturally to help heal the planet as we feed our families.

Be the change!

-Rob

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