Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nature Does Not Need Compost Piles

This spring I have read Lasagna Gardening and Gardening Without Work, both of these books discuss deep mulch gardening.  Gardening without work focuses on the mulch part while Lasagna gardening focuses on building beds.  The Lasagna method will get your soil in condition quicker, but both will enrich your soil in the long term.

Nature does not need a compost pile, leaves just fall off of trees and rot where they lay.  Grass grows tall and goes to seed then is blown down by wind, rain, snow, and animals where it breaks down into the soil.  So why do we spend lots of time building, maintaining, and spreading compost?  It has gotten to be big business, with expensive composters and books telling you how to make compost. By following either of these methods you can get rid of the compost pile once your bed is built.  And with Gardening Without Work you don't need it to begin with.  You just need to hold some mulch in reserve.

Ruth Stout, the author of gardening without work, recommends 25 fifty pound hay bales for a 50'x50' garden.  For her method you apply this hay 8" deep in the fall wherever you want to plant in the spring.  This 8" will quickly become 2-3".  Then rake back the mulch in spring to expose the dirt, ONLY where you want to plant, and plant.  As your plants grow up add more mulch as needed to kill weeds.  If it is spring or summer and you already have your garden going you can still start adding compost immediately, no need to wait till fall. The only fertilizer she used after the first 5 years, in which she used manure, was soybean meal spread on top of the mulch in winter.  As the rain and snow came it would wash it through the mulch to the soil where it would only become available as nitrogen in the spring when the ground warmed.  This is not possible with conventional fertilizer which will leach out of the soil by spring.  In winter your reserve bales of hay can be placed over your parsnips, turnips, carrots and other root vegetables that can be wintered in the ground.  Just flip the bale over and pull up what you need, then replace the bale.  She suggest several mulch options, but focuses on leaves and hay/straw because they are most available.

The Lasagna method builds more of a horizontal compost bed in the fall and then plants directly in the compost instead of the ground in the spring.  Then as plants come up you mulch around them to prevent weeds, hold in moisture, and encourage earthworm activity.  Again, if you have already planted, you can start adding organic matter regardless of the time of year.  She starts a bed with either newspaper or cardboard directly on top of an untilled sod (grass).  Then a layer of manure, chopped leaves, peat moss, compost, straw, grass clippings, wood ash, etc. in alternating layers.  She recommends to build the bed up 18-24" deep, NOT a raised bed. This will shrink to 4-6" by spring.   Once a bed is established the continued use of mulch will feed the bed almost everything it needs.  This method does recommend blood meal, bone meal, kelp, etc as fertilizer and other supplements to bring back trace minerals.

This can be replaced if you can find a farmer who pastures his cows and only feeds hay during the winter.  Just get some manure and add it to your bed yearly for 5-10 years and it will replace the lost fertility and trace minerals.  The continued mulchings and and adding organic matter from plants back onto the bed will keep trace minerals high enough to no longer be a problem.

Both methods recommend narrow planting beds instead of rows.  This is because the soil will become so rich that you can increase the density of your plantings.  If you do this over too large of an area then you will not be able to harvest it all.  For this reason keep beds 3-5' wide so that you can reach everything from one side or the other.  The space in between beds can be filled with wood chips to prevent grass and weeds from starting there and spreading into the garden.

A neat tip for those who mulch and have a risk of a late frost, just spread hay extra deep around frost tender plants and they should survive just fine.  After the risk has passed pull back the extra mulch and save it for when weeds try to come thru.

One time when a compost pile is still useful with a deep mulch system is to warm a hot frame.  A hot frame is a small seedbed/greenhouse that is kept warm.  This can be by electricity, hot water, manure, or compost.  With this application you get multiple benefits.  The compost pile produces Heat, Transplants, Mulch and fertilizer.  The fertilizer is added by bacteria in the pile fixing nitrogen from the air which adds up to 25% more nitrogen than is available in the organic matter to begin with.

Some may say that that deep mulch will rob nitrogen from the plants to break down the organic matter.  This is only true for a few days to a few weeks in rich soil.  If your soil is just being converted to this method you will need to add some manure to supply nitrogen for the plants and the bacteria.  Once you have done this for a few years the deep mulch will have little to no effect on the available nitrogen in the soil.

Some say that the manure will burn the plants, this is true if you apply them to plants while it is wet.  If you place it into the middle of rows till it is dry and then add it to your plants this will not be a problem.  If you have persistent weeds then bury them under wet manure and let it burn them.  

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