Monday, January 7, 2019

I Compost better than I Garden

I might be better at composting than gardening.

I’ve been working on the perfect compost style since being a mad teenager who, shortly after reading about it, had wind-rows of steaming mulch in my parent’s front yard.  I was ever seeking the ideal system, the perfect recipe, adapted to real people’s habits and realistic lifestyles.  Minimal effort for maximum gain by sheer efficiency- that was the goal.

I get a kick out of driving past a good municipal compost facility.

I might have nailed it a few years ago, at least for me, and anyone like me who resents waste in general and has questionable back health, deeply loathing unnecessary heavy labor. (i.e. TURNING compost)

So here I’ll use lots and lots of words and a few pictures for a truly very simple system which has been doing magic dividends the last few years.


The major advantages to my own system are:

1)Finished compost twice a year.
2) easily harvested/gathered/moved finished material
3) NO TURNING
4) NO TURNING
5) Got your attention there?
6) Up to ONE TON of finished compost per year, delivered manageably.
7) Intense production in a small space, and
8)It makes me so damn happy. When all else in life looks bleak, there she steams, reliably.

By following a couple rules:
1) good dimensions.
2) consistent watering. (lightly, frequently)
3) balancing and processing raw material.
4) using a simple twice-a-year schedule, and
5)keeping a stockpiles of “browns” on hand at all times.

It sure looks a lot simpler just sitting there than this description.

The Design
Half of the trick to this is what goes in, half of it is how the bin itself is constructed.

I made my compost bin from scrap lumber as well as some nice new (rot resistant) cedar lumber and fixtures. Use whatever you want.  4’ tall, 4’ wide, 2’ deep, each bay being 2’ wide.  Simple. The front doors and back are wooden slats with small (0-1/2”) gaps.  The sides and middle divider are 1/2” hardware mesh or thereabouts. That way, there is moisture retention as well as oxygenation, in balance.  Wider and the middle might get anaerobic. narrower, and the amount of dry outside edge would be too high in ratio, as well as the bin not being able to retain heat/moisture.

The bottom is heavy plywood, it and the doors (and perhaps the back in future?) are lined with a thick plastic “basin” which trails out the sides and flaps down; this is for three good reasons- to catch moisture and drain it outside to plants rather than saturate the plywood, to keep tree roots from invading from below (which steal all the moisture and nutrients; it happened to me one iteration before this design, it was very strange and a very serious problem) and thirdly, because the powerful decomposition happening in the bin will chew right through the bottom in no time; we’ll see how long other unprotected wood lasts in contact with the compost.


Accidentally, I found that having wire mesh in the middle allows the critters to transfer from one finished side to the other, be they visible things like woodlice and red wigglers or the invisible microbes. Perhaps this is a secret huge advantage to this system- that there is a massive population of hard workers able to move on to new quarry and not have their numbers decrease.

I put the bin on a platform of concrete pavers over a little layer of gravel. It can weigh up to a ton; small feet will be crushed or mashed into the ground. I’ve done it.

I used an experimental,hippy-dippy organic wood treatment: an emulsion of vinegar and canola oil.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


The doors, hinges and latches should be strong; the weight against them is surprising. There are beams spanning above the doors for essential bracing strength.  1/4” thick cedar fence slats alone were not strong enough for the doors. There is an unattached lid, which is simply a wooden frame stretched with shade cloth that snaps in. This sits on whichever side is digesting and not being fed, keeping some evaporation down, but mostly to send a very clear message for me to feed the other side; I first started using it to steer my neighbors to the correct bay, who would walk over and empty their kitchen compost pails themselves. 

The last element is a great stockpile of brown material. For us, this is a 6-8’ wide leaf cage hung right next to the bin for ease. You dump the leaves into it just once, but you’ll grab handfuls out of it every few days all year.  If you have no access to tree leaves, you can use straw bales, bagged paper shred, or even fine wood chips, but the latter had better be from untreated wood and you don’t have to use as much in volume.

Shade cloth-wrapped wire cages can even work fine for the compost bins themselves, but they should be designed to open easily for harvest, might be a bit too dry on the edges, and if you have nearby trees, will be pillaged from below.

The secret sauce- how to add material.
The trick is that things get mixed and cut up as they go in. Generally nothing thicker than 1/2” or longer than 4”.  A whole halloween pumpkin will get smashed up with a shovel in the bin or cut into chunks in the kitchen before it goes out. No twigs larger than a pencil.  Think of it as you roughly chipper-shredding everything that goes in, as it goes in.  I knew a lady who used an old food processor as her countertop compost pail, because she could just buzz it on and it would pre-mince everything before it went outside.  Brilliant. chopping stuff up as it goes in is perhaps the only “hard” thing about this system. Take the time to simply cut up that old peony plant into pieces as you drop it into the compost. But it eliminates so much else- like bad smells, waiting for years, and ever (EVER) turning the pile! It also has the wonderful side effect of breaking things down fast enough that it greatly diminishes the probability of scavenging animals finding nice big food treasures worth their time.  

“Greens” are the gardener’s word for nitrogen rich material: grass clippings, spent coffee grounds, the average table scrap. Oddly; hair, blood, and feathers count as greens. Don’t think too hard about that. This also includes literally green garden trimmings. Don’t fail to take advantage and use coffeepot dregs, rinse-water from the blender, juice drained from canned fruit, pasta-cooking water, and other kitchen liquids. Natural sugars basically classify as strong greens. If any of these are left on their own in a pile without “browns,” they will reek; that is almost the only reason for anyone’s compost smelling: Inadequate browns to balance the greens.

“Browns” are the carbon-rich stuff.  It does not stink if it is piles up, so that's why we stockpile it to pair up with the greens as they come along. When in doubt about the ratio, do a little more brown; that way you err on the side of not-smelly, and if you do find that too much brown is not breaking down completely, it’s easy to tip that balance by adding just a little more coffee ground, blood meal, fish emulsion, or another fine green source to get it dialed close to that happy 50/50.

Browns are stored next to the bin so that they can be added to it as “greens” arrive, so there’s roughly equal parts “green” and “brown.”  When a bucket of grass clippings arrives, it is dumped in with about a bucket’s worth leaves, maybe lightly stirred up a little. Some folks use thin alternating layers of green-brown-green-brown so they are essentially mixed. This is the part that totally eliminates the odious, evil, murderous task of compost-turning. (It was the cause of my first serious back injury).  What will you choose: snip-snip with the pruners, or vile backbreaking drudgery?


Avoid high salts, and generally avoid meat to avoid pathogens. We get away with small amounts, like the ground beef within a chili, table scraps and gristle, as well as small bits of dairy, because it gets well absorbed into the browns, getting fully digested, and our bin is almost always hot. Most men and some emphatic ladies pee on their compost. 

Which leads us to watering. A compost bin needs roughly the same water schedule as vegetable plants. I hit my compost bin (both bays) with the hose for a few seconds every 1-3 days in the growing season; whenever I’m walking by on my way to water potted plants.  Stealing an idea from an old friend which I use in other gardens, I simply divert a drip emitter or micro-prayer from the nearby veg irrigation system and put it on the bin. That’s some all-star lazy-clever labor-saving gardener stuff right there.

A simple schedule: 
On an airplane coming back from North Carolina, I figured out a schedule that splits the year’s warm months in two timeframes would allow you to use just two bays, each getting about 6 warm-enough months per year to fully mature. Nov 1 is good because it is about the right time to accept a whole bunch of dead plants from cleaned-up veg garden as well as apply finished compost to bare veg garden soil, leaving June 1 as the corresponding date. So on those harvest days, the bin that’s been getting filled is now capped off, and the other bin is harvested.

June 1: harvest/empty the right bin and cap the left one to leave it alone until November 1.

If there was a a third bay, it would give you six months to procrastinate using your finished batch while it waits, but the schedule can keep moving: one bay would be accepting input and one would be capped and digesting.

Things it has eaten:
-King crab shells. I was curious how much it could break them down during 6 months. Couldn’t find them.

-Citrus, the books say, is too acidic or something.  Well, our compost bin is not allowed to read such books and is not aware of this, enjoying all kinds of rinds. 

-Paper towels used to soak up a pan of bacon grease regularly go into the pile.  Paper is rendered 100% gone.  I got so cocky about this, I put in a whole phonebook.  For some reason it left the yellow pages, but the cover and white pages were very much gone. ( I trashed the yellow pages in case they had something dubious in them)


-Financial documents, hand-shredded a little. Not for privacy but because I’d rather not be reminded. A good brown.

-Dead cactus and agaves. I usually put them in the middle to ensure they aren’t spared on the outside edge of the bin. Their claws don’t make it out.

- All of our immediate neighbor’s fall leaves and even some from distant friends get stockpiled.  And a local business or two. They are almost enough to be a year’s supply of “browns,” stored in a big wire cage right next to the bin.  We usually run out just before fall and resort to shredded paper, egg crates, or straw for “browns.”  We accidentally discovered straw last year; it's a lot of good carbon stored in a small space. Our friend steals leaf bags off the street; they also store neatly and easily in those bags.

- All the coffee grounds from BestSlope Coffee Company come here. They are a wonderful small roastery and coffeeshop down the street.  It’s a 5-gallon bucket or two, weekly.  Coffee grounds are the ideal “green,” because its fine texture settles and trickles into the “browns” well and seems to marry them into oblivion. It’s probably the single most active and beneficial component for our composting.

- 3-4 homes worth of kitchen scraps: two or three friends’ households have 5 gallon buckets in rotation that we take. It’s been strange how we started with just our own kitchen and garden scraps, steadily increased the volume going in over the years, and it just kept taking it. I increased the flow to see how much it could handle. I think what I’m doing now is the maximum, because now, one bin will be piled high over the top of the rim by its rotation date. It still manages to gobble that up.

-Bread. We don’t think twice about it.

-Candy and sugary desserts are better composted than eaten most of the time. But somebody fully enjoys it in the bin.

           Am I worried about the thistles?  Snooze.

-You know those funny corn-starch “compostable” but totally plastic-looking cups, plates and utensils?  I’ve put them in occasionally out of curiosity. Having never found them speaks for itself.

-The easier to get the raw material, the better.  I go to the coffeeshop regularly enough, and it’s a close walk.  Now, my neighbors drop their leaves/scraps off out of habit.  The fewer extra steps needed to make it happen, the easier it is to keep doing.  Now, I’m so entrenched, I think it would be harder not to compost.


How it gets used: 
I harvest twice a year.
On June 1, the bin that’s been capped and not filled since Nov 1 is opened, and despite reaching the top back then, has reduced to about half its volume.  It looks like a chocolate layer cake.  I usually give a few buckets to friends, a wheelbarrow or two to a neighbor for his/her veg garden, and then take the rest and simply pile it on any bare soil I can see in my veg garden. I try to totally empty that bin so I can immediately start re-filling the empty bay with raw stuff.  A harvested bin is worth maybe a dozen full wheel-barrows. Wet, it’s just under 1000 pounds. (I only know this because when we moved, I had to carry it in half loads in my little pickup, whose springs squatted the way they do for that much rock…)

After being at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens in North Carolina for a week to help build their crevice garden, I adopted their system of compost application: make lots of it and just lay it down 6-12 inches thick. Yep.

No mixing. Just let nature do its thing. This is not surprising in “no-till” circles.  Oh my,  #$%@ ! does it work.  It starts to incorporate so fast into the soil profile. You do have to push it aside in order to sow or plant new plants on the native soil if you’ve recently laid it down, but I’m amazed how fast it all evens out and even more amazed at how plants do; mostly just rooting straight into the compost. It’s extra convenient to site your bin inside your veg garden because you don’t have to haul the finished material anywhere when it’s done and the “compost tea” which oozes from the bin bottom enriches the nearby soil in an astounding way.

So, to sum it all up: there is a two-bay compost bin sitting in the veg garden with a heap of leaves next to it.  Scraps and such get chopped as they goes in with commensurate browns added in. It is allowed to fill up for half the year, getting watered lightly, frequently, and half a year later, it’s perfect, glorious, black gold. Get you some.

(link)
(photo courtesy of dirtanddogs)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Pincushion, the Nazar: an unlikely encounter with Acantholimon




 A. venustum

Acantholimon, basically an angry asian carnation, is one of the great pillars of the continental rock garden.  I'm even more fond of them because of how brilliantly they are doing at APEX, wrapping around rocks in the sexiest ways, and also because despite my being incapable of nursery-growing lots of "easy" rockery plants, I seem to be able to propagate these guys fairly well.  I've got dreams of propagating the blazes out of them so that every fool who doesn't have one will.

Even just in bud-spike, they are elegant. (left- A. halophilum)  Mean to the touch, but elegant.  Some folks prefer the tiny, sessile ones like trojanum.  I like all of them, especially easy ones which make magnificent round buns.


Acantholimon trojanum, photo by Zdeněk Zvolánek.



But anyhow:

I spent Christmas 2014 in Istanbul.  It was fine. I forget I'm not a city guy, so I went on to Cappadocia (above)  to hike around for a week in the winter.  


It's weird how much like home it looks- their tuffaceous hills look like our shale hills of the bookcliffs.  

But mostly, rural/small-town culture is more my thing.  

Also, Colorado doesn't have roman and byzantine ruins just littered all over the countryside, just everywhere, and ancient dwellings carved into the stone. They are so commonplace, they are used as barns and sheds.
Frosty mornings were magical, especially when the famous balloon rides happened.  I stayed with a friend in Uçhisar, which overlooks the touristic town of Göreme.

All around the middle east, you'll see the nazar, sometimes called "the evil eye," a talisman to capture/defend/ward-off the malevolent.  

 In Turkey, theirs is the "nazar boncuğu," (literally "nazar bead")

Not uncommon over doorways, windows, thresholds, even clothing.  Someone you know who went to the middle east probably gave you one as a souvenir.

Most restaurants don't stay open for the off-season, but D'STİny was.  The name is wordplay, I think for Destiny/Friend("Dost").  They had Lahmacun, my favorite turkish food- it looks like a pizza, but you roll it around salad-like fixings and squeeze lemon juice on it. 

 And I noticed something totally weird hanging around the restaurant in all the places where I'd expect the nazar. 


Is that a dead Acantholimon!?

The owner came by,  Mr. Yaşar Doğan, (a surname which means falcon, I think)  and we visited. Recalling our chat, I marvel at how good my turkish was then.  I could hardy ask for a bathroom now.  

I asked about the plant hanging around.  And he told me a story.  He likes to garden and grow fruit at home, and propagate, apparently, for he was growing sapling fruit trees, I think he was keen to want to plant our more apple trees around his place, but as soon as he'd set out his precious baby trees, the rabbits would come by and eat them off.  Bummer.  

He said that he observed how when other plants grew through Acantholimon in nature ( I don't recall him using a name or word for them), the rabbits didn't bother them.    (It's widely believed that a lot of the phrygana/tragancanth vegetation- "spiny ball plants" for the rest of us- are as prevalent in Asia and the middle east because humans and grazing cattle have been a part of the ecosystem for so very long that they have become prevalent and actually prospered  there as a result)

Well, so he started collecting the dead cushions of Acantholimons he'd find out in the countryside.  (Their nasty exoskeletons do tend to linger- Bob says that in the garden, when one dies, the best way to clean up the dry, thorny thing is just to light it on fire.)  Yaşar would pile up the dead cushions as protection for this new trees, and sure enough it worked to fend off the evil rabbits.

So, to him, the Acantholimon was as good a protector as the nazar, which lead him to hang the plants around the doorways of his restaurant.  




Sure enough, after a few days wandering, I found the local Acantholimon.  
WHY ON EARTH DIDN'T I COLLECT THOSE SEEDS!?  

I have lots of regrets of things I didn't do.  
(That's Mt. Erciyes (Argaeus))

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Looking back 2018: Projects New and Old


It's nice to look back at places you've worked hard on and watch that sweat equity spring from the earth.  A buffalo grass dog-meadow with wildflowers in late summer.

I did an unplanned, bonus crevice garden with concrete from a patio which was removed when the back yard orchard went in.  It's fun to work with that stuff, no intention of looking "natural," just using a free material to grow plants better.  Each horse trough (also a re-use situation...) has different soil.  

An unirrigated front yard, a few years old.  This is how I check up- drive by plant peeping.  I am that creepy guy with a camera driving by, slowly.  The kid-safe rounded basalt idea is thanks in part to Susan in the Pink Hat, who has totally killer rock garden photography on her blog this season, if you've not seen it yet.  (Click the link on her name, yeah, leave this one.  Worth it.)

The Cheyenne Crevice garden begged me to find some previously ungrown plants- and I was lucky to stumble into Heterotheca (Chrysopsis, now) aff. pumila  while camping near a different job.  I got seed; we'll give it a shot.

My buddy Scott handed the reigns of a designed meadow he did in Telluride; the vigour of the plants left something to be desired and a soil test revealed my suspicions- compost with too much woodchip was tying up the nitrogen.

But the rock fell slope there is coming in well, Scott filled it with rock garden and mountain plants oversown with California poppies, which, of course, steal the show and have a field day in mountain climates.




Then, to really finish my by out for the year, was the joint creative, collaborative hands- on project with Lauren Springer Ogden within her much anticipated living version in Gardens on Spring Creek of the "Undaunted Garden," named after perhaps one of the finest books about gardening in Colorado which has enjoyed a deserved recent reprint.



The "Garden of Eat'n"  vegetable demonstration garden there just blew me away, totally amazing.  
Go if you haven't.

There were garter snakes in our 8.5 ton Rhyolite rock heap, and after we scattered the stone, it became full of toads overnight, all of which were all the size of half-dollars, except for Kingdaddy here:
Bufo woodhousii, guessing.

I've never arranged rock like this before,  and it was a perfect joint bouncing-ideas-between-us collaboration with Lauren, who felt that these amazing stones would be best set as though they flaked off of the stones above, as though they fell from a cliff, shattered, and were making their way down the slope in geologic time.  It meant leaning some on one another, not burying each one in half, and having some laying across the top of others.   In preparation, I studied rocks on slopes in nature for this.  Lauren made some arrangements which were so gorgeous- wherein it was easy to imagine them clunking int one another like a slow log jam.    It was a total hoot.  And both of our backs were wrecked afterwords.  
Laid out, but faces unchosen and not bedded.


These are the backbone of the cactus section of her Undaunted Garden.  Imagine them interspersed with armies ("flash mobs") of mounding cacti like Echinocereus.

I particularly love this bit.  I learned from her to use the nicest face of each rock, something that admittedly I don't do in crevice situations- where form reigns supreme in order to get them all to knit together. But here, each stone has room to breathe.  And it is sort of a relief, artistically, after so many crevice gardens.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A little more applause for Stud Puppy

Stipa scribneri was sold back in the day at erstwhile Timberline Gardens as "Muhlenbergia 'Stud Puppy," a selection brought down from the mountains by TX/CO garden designer Tom Peace.  I took it to the books and found it to be what we must currently correctly call "Acnatherum scribneri," or Scribner's Needlegrass.  I'll stick with 'Stud Puppy, ' because it is. It really is, a real stud.

 Chelsea nursery humored me and grew on some propagules I gave them.   
Pretty cute in their #1 pots!
I could not help myself; I think I bought them back.



What's so great about it?
1. Most clumpgrasses are short-lived. It is not.
2. Most grasses prefer or require sun.  It tolerates bright shade quite nicely.
3. It grows dry, but not unirrigated in Western Colorado, hailing from 8000 feet or so in our mountains, so needing just a tad, weekly or monthly water, if grown down low.
4.  Left un-pruned, so that last year's yellow foliage stays- it still looks good. I think most warm season grasses look ratty if you don't clean them up.
5. It's firework-ball-arching habit makes it a lovely light-catching candidate for Meadow-style gardens, alongside the things like the real Muhlies,  Giant Sacaton grass, and Atlas Fescue.
6.  Grows in any soil.


Part of your classy Halloween yard display.

What are the downsides?
1. It reseeds. A little. So if you are a control freak, I'm sad for you.
2. It is slow-ish to establish.   This helps with #1 above.  But it grows as slow as a Switchgrass in the nursery, for me, and not at light-speed like Grama grasses and others.
3. Its thin substance leaves it casting little shadow, and therefore leaving room at its feet for smaller plants like groundcovers, bulbs, short cacti, and rock garden plants.  It works fine in a medium to large crevice garden.  Oh wait, this was supposed to be a list of downsides.


I've been growing it from three different sources- including my own collection from next to the fire department, I think it was, in Buena Vista.    It all looked close enough I've accidentally mixed them up.

I'll be growing it in the nursery in future years, so keep it in mind should you go to the April rock garden sale at Denver Botanic.


The APEX Crevice Garden: A Big Update after 3 years



Touching base in spring 2018.  Apex grows.

So coy, those Manzanitas.  This is Allan Taylor's "Red."



Unk buckwheat.

Mini forms of Hymenoxys acaulis are going to mix with tall ones and argentea.

I am never there to see the flowers on Petunia patagonica.   Huff.

Never enough Moltkia petrea, I've planted a few more.  Thanks Bill.
It really does behave like a blue daphne.

In a strike of the first theft in the garden, this Eriogonum kennedyi was dug up.  Such things are absolutely guaranteed to die when moved.  That's what a thief deserves. Just a couple other silver buns were taken.  

Phlox nana 'Perfect Pink' from David Salmon is like a pink version of the reblooming-dry-loving easy-grow flower-factory Zinnia grandiflora.

Hedysarum dshambulicum.


Monardella macrantha is a showstopper, but has not persisted.  

This aerial photo was taken as we were finishing; I think I know who the two figures are.

Stenotus acaulis

Tulipa linifolia does well at the base, near the true soil, and dislikes the top.

On "Mount Stireman", mound 3.



Agave toumeyana v bella is pupping. It likes the north exposures.
Rabeia albipuncta ex Molteno, a Stireman plant shining bright.

'Ochsenblut' Phlox courtesy of Mike Kintgen.
Still can't find a record for this Eriogonum. Any ideas, friends?