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- Organic Gardener's Composting - 1/37 -


Organic Gardener's Composting

by Steve Solomon

Foreword

Back in the '70's, I made the momentous move from the East Coast to the West and quickly discovered that much of my garden knowledge needed an update. Seattle's climate was unlike anything I had experienced in Massachusetts or Ohio or Colorado, and many of my favorite vegetables simply didn't grow well. A friend steered me to a new seed company, a tiny business called Territorial Seed, unique in that, rather than trying to tout its wares all over the country, it would only sell to people living west of the Cascade Mountains. Every vegetable and cover crop listed had been carefully tested and selected by Steve Solomon for its performance in the maritime Northwest.

The 1980's saw the revival of regional gardening, a concept once widely accepted, but since lost to the sweeping homogeneity of the '50s and '60s. Steve Solomon and his Territorial Seed Company directly influenced the return of regional garden making by creating an awareness of climatic differences and by providing quantities of helpful information specific to this area. Not only could customers order regionally appropriate, flavorful and long-lasting vegetables from the Territorial catalog's pages, we could also find recipes for cooking unfamiliar ones, as well as recipes for building organic fertilizers of all sorts. Territorial's catalog offered information about organic or environmentally benign pest and disease controls, seasonal cover crops, composts and mulches, and charts guiding us to optimal planting patterns. Every bit of it was the fruit of Steve Solomon's work and observation. I cannot begin to calculate the disappointments and losses Steve helped me to avoid, nor the hours of effort he saved for me and countless other regional gardeners. We came to rely on his word, for we found we could; If Steve said this or that would grow in certain conditions, by gum, it would. Better yet, if he didn't know something, or was uncertain about it, he said so, and asked for our input. Before long, a network of environmentally concerned gardeners had formed around Territorial's customer base, including several Tilth communities, groups of gardeners concerned with promoting earth stewardship and organic husbandry in both rural and urban settings.

In these days of generalized eco-awareness, it is easy to forget that a few short years ago, home gardeners were among the worst environmental offenders, cheerfully poisoning anything that annoyed them with whatever dreadful chemical that came to hand, unconscious of the long-term effects on fauna and flora, water and soil. Now, thank goodness, many gardeners know that their mandate is to heal the bit of earth in their charge. Composting our home and garden wastes is one of the simplest and most beneficial things we can do, both to cut down the quantity of wastes we produce, and to restore health to the soil we garden upon I can think of no better guide to the principles and techniques of composting than Steve Solomon. Whether you live in an urban condo or farm many acres, you will find in these pages practical, complete and accessible information that serves your needs, served up with the warmth and gentle humor that characterizes everything Steve does.

Ann Lovejoy, Bainbridge Island, Washington, 1993

To My Readers

A few special books live on in my mind. These were always enjoyable reading. The author's words seemed to speak directly to me like a good friend's conversation pouring from their eyes, heart and soul. When I write I try to make the same thing happen for you. I imagine that there is an audience hearing my words, seated in invisible chairs behind my word processor. You are part of that group. I visualize you as solidly as I can. I create by talking to you.

It helps me to imagine that you are friendly, accepting, and understand my ideas readily. Then I relax, enjoy writing to you and proceed with an open heart. Most important, when the creative process has been fun, the writing still sparkles when I polish it up the next day.

I wrote my first garden book for an audience of one: what seemed a very typical neighbor, someone who only thought he knew a great deal about raising vegetables. Constitutionally, he would only respect and learn from a capital "A" authority who would direct him step-by-step as a cookbook recipe does. So that is what I pretended to be. The result was a concise, basic regional guide to year-round vegetable production. Giving numerous talks on gardening and teaching master gardener classes improved my subsequent books. With this broadening, I expanded my imaginary audience and filled the invisible chairs with all varieties of gardeners who had differing needs and goals.

This particular book gives me an audience problem. Simultaneously I have two quite different groups of composters in mind. What one set wants the other might find boring or even irritating. The smaller group includes serious food gardeners like me. Vegetable gardeners have traditionally been acutely interested in composting, soil building, and maintaining soil organic matter. We are willing to consider anything that might help us grow a better garden and we enjoy agricultural science at a lay person's level.

The other larger audience, does not grow food at all, or if they do it is only a few tomato plants in a flower bed. A few are apartment dwellers who, at best, keep a few house plants. Yet even renters may want to live with greater environmental responsibility by avoiding unnecessary contributions of kitchen garbage to the sewage treatment system. Similarly, modern home owners want to stop sending yard wastes to landfills. These days householders may be offered incentives (or threatened with penalties) by their municipalities to separate organic, compostable garbage from paper, from glass, from metal or from plastic. Individuals who pay for trash pickup by volume are finding that they can save considerable amounts of money by recycling their own organic wastes at home.

The first audience is interested in learning about the role of compost in soil fertility, better soil management methods and growing healthier, more nutritious food. Much like a serious home bread baker, audience one seeks exacting composting recipes that might result in higher quality. Audience two primarily wants to know the easiest and most convenient way to reduce and recycle organic debris.

Holding two conflicting goals at once is the fundamental definition of a problem. Not being willing to abandon either (or both) goals is what keeps a problem alive. Different and somewhat opposing needs of these two audiences make this book somewhat of a problem. To compensate I have positioned complex composting methods and the connections between soil fertility and plant health toward the back of the book. The first two-thirds may be more than sufficient for the larger, more casual members of my imaginary audience. But I could not entirely divide the world of composting into two completely separate levels.

Instead, I tried to write a book so interesting that readers who do not food garden will still want to read it to the end and will realize that there are profound benefits from at-home food production. These run the gamut from physical and emotional health to enhanced economic liberty. Even if it doesn't seem to specifically apply to your recycling needs, it is my hope that you will become more interested in growing some of your own food. I believe we would have a stronger, healthier and saner country if more liberty-loving Americans would grow food gardens.

CHAPTER ONE

What Is Compost

Do you know what really happens when things rot? Have other garden books confused you with vague meanings for words like "stabilized humus?" This book won't. Are you afraid that compost making is a nasty, unpleasant, or difficult process? It isn't.

A compost pile is actually a fast-track method of changing crude organic materials into something resembling soil, called humus. But the word "humus" is often misunderstood, along with the words "compost," and "organic matter." And when fundamental ideas like these are not really defined in a person's mind, the whole subject they are a part of may be confused. So this chapter will clarify these basics.

Compost making is a simple process. Done properly it becomes a natural part of your gardening or yard maintenance activities, as much so as mowing the lawn. And making compost does not have to take any more effort than bagging up yard waste.

Handling well-made compost is always a pleasant experience. It is easy to disregard compost's vulgar origins because there is no similarity between the good-smelling brown or black crumbly substance dug out of a compost pile and the manure, garbage, leaves, grass clippings and other waste products from which it began.

Precisely defined, composting means 'enhancing the consumption of crude organic matter by a complex ecology of biological decomposition organisms.' As raw organic materials are eaten and re-eaten by many, many tiny organisms from bacteria (the smallest) to earthworms (the largest), their components are gradually altered


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