compost

Fruit Stickers are Forever

I hate those little plastic stickers applied to individual fruits for inventory and retail purposes.

Why? Because they last forever, like all plastics. Even after years of being moved from the compost heap to the garden, being raked up with fallen leaves or other debris, put back in the compost, redistributed to the garden, there they are, good as new, winking up at me from the soil. I found one today while in the throes of digging up the Meconopsis bed (more about that in a future post). It had to be several years old, but if I had rinsed off the dirt, it would have been pristine.

Old sticker found while digging.

Old sticker found while digging.

Continuing to put them in the heap would lead to an ever-increasing accumulation. Once I realized this, I banned stickers from the compost pail in the kitchen. Of course, it’s only the fruits whose peels are removed before eating that contribute to this problem — bananas, oranges, melons and avocados. Peeling stickers off apples, oranges and bananas is easy, even when there are multiple stickers on one wretched banana — even organic ones, which is especially offensive. Tomatoes, nectarines and other fruits with delicate skins are not so easy to de-sticker, although the fuzz on peaches seems to prevent them from sticking as well, which means they’re easier to peel. (Another point in favour of eating peaches in season).

Peach with sticker

Once peeled, the stickers present another problem — how to dispose of them? I used to put them in the garbage, but reasoned that since I lug my soft plastics to a recycling depot (and pay a small fee to deposit them), it made sense to include the pesky stickers. So now I stick them together in clumps and put them in the soft plastics bag. Or stick them to other things in said bag. Given the small size of these little nuisances, they may very well end up in a waterway or the ocean, contributing to the problems created by micro-plastics. Melting them down and turning them into something else is the only sensible solution.

There are ways to avoid the damn things. Grow your own fruit, or buy exclusively from farmers’ markets. Trouble is, there aren’t too many banana and orange farmers in Canada. I understand there are people who collect fruit stickers, sort of like stamp collectors collect stamps. Or others who use them as little blobs of colour to create art. If you can believe this. But even those folks must have hit the “No more stickers, please!” point by now.

I’m not the only gardener/consumer to be annoyed by fruit stickers. A thorough discussion may be found here. I’m just surprised a biodegradable alternative hasn’t been found yet. Even fast food chains have almost eliminated plastic from their products. Fruit is supposed to be healthier than hamburgers and french fries, so why can’t fruit producers get their act together?

Compost: Brute Labour of Love

Recently, I spent a weekend spreading an enhanced compost mulch over some of my perennial beds. While I filled the wheelbarrow, spadeful by spadeful, chopped and blended the rough compost, and then spaded it all out again onto the beds, it occurred to me that I was doing brute labour, the kind of thing one associates with medieval peasants.

But it’s worth it.

I can’t imagine gardening without compost. Making and using it is fundamental to the annual cycle of this garden, from gathering spent plant material throughout the summer and fall, to distributing the resulting compost the following spring.

It is true that making and using compost does involve episodes of vigorous work. But that can be said of gardening in general. Only the mildest types of gardening activities — buying pre-potted plants, plunking them on the patio and administering water occasionally (and it’s debatable whether this is really gardening) — are labour-free.

Composting is also burdened with the perception that it’s an esoteric, complicated process, involving strict proportions of materials, added chemicals, and right or wrong ways to put them all together.

I can say from my own experience that it’s really quite a simple process. The one critical element (aside from plant material) is the gardener’s labour.

So here’s how I make compost…

First, I must explain that I do cool, slow compost. It takes a full year to break down to a usable state. Fast, hot compost is a different process, involving (you guessed it) more work and possibly special equipment, such as a rotating compost drum.

I have two heaps, the working heap and the in-process or finished heap. Each one occupies a space about 5 feet (1.5 metres) square. The main inputs are perennial stalks and spent flowers, accumulated through the deadheading process in spring, summer and fall, weeds (of course!) and a huge raft of leaves at the end of the gardening season in October and November. Kitchen waste —  fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells — are a minute contribution throughout the year.

Collecting the stuff — cutting down, raking up and lugging — is just the beginning. I don’t put long, tough stalks into my heaps intact. They break down much better if I chop them up first, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to lay them on top of the pile and whack them with a machete. I have a nice one — nearly a yard long, handle wrapped with copper wire. It’s definitely one of the essential composting tools, along with digging fork and heavy pry bar (whose function I’ll get to shortly).

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

Because my compost piles don’t heat up sufficiently to kill seeds, I try to avoid adding material containing ripe seeds. Three plants that are stalwarts of my garden — lamb’s ears (Stachys betonicifolia), toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) — seed vastly, so I have to make sure I cut them down before the seeds ripen. (Needless to say, I don’t always manage this, which is why they are “stalwarts”).

It’s best to chop up plant material when it’s fresh. Once wilted, it’s harder to cut through. That doesn’t stop me from piling up stuff to be dealt with later — sometimes weeks later. (Perfection, though desirable, is not always achieved). Things get messy all the time in the compost area, as when I cut down all the lamb’s ears, toadflax and campion before they go to seed, creating a backlog of stuff that needs to be processed for the heap.

Once or twice a season I do a big compost heap cleanup, chopping, forking and stacking everything into an organized pile, making sure I incorporate some finished or at least half-baked compost in with the fresh stuff, along with water when needed. A compost pile should be damp, like a squeezed-out sponge, not wet.

One often sees instructions about the proportion of brown and green material, with admonishments to get it right, or a smelly mess will result. I suspect this applies only to those who put lawn clippings in their compost heaps. Large amounts of fresh green stuff (as opposed to material higher in cellulose such as perennial stalks) may result in anaerobic decomposition which does produce slimy, smelly results. Or so I hear, never having experienced this myself. My lawn clippings stay on the lawn, and because said lawn is never fertilized or overwatered, it’s not thick enough for thatch buildup to be a problem. (Sometimes the lazy way is the better way).

Things (aside from ripe seedheads) that I don’t put in my compost heaps: woody material such as twigs or branches, dandelions (which can ripen seeds even after being pulled up), and noxious weeds such as bindweed and creeping bellflower, which can sprout from the smallest root fragments. All this goes to the municipal compost program. There, composting is done on a grand scale, resulting in temperatures high enough to kill weeds and seeds. (Or so one hopes; I never buy any of the stuff myself). Something else I keep out of my heaps — those little plastic stickers on fruit. They never break down and are offensive to see in the garden beds. Not all members of the household bother to peel them off and put them in the garbage, however, so they creep in too. Most annoying.

The pile in the picture above includes all of last fall’s leaves, with a layer of freshly added stuff on top. By now the leaves have packed down solidly and are probably not yet rotted. Oxygen is needed to promote decomposition, so I use the giant pry bar to poke holes into the heap, working the bar right down to the bottom as well as sticking it horizontally and lifting the layers. It’s encouraging when this is fairly easy to do, indicating that breakdown is occurring. It’s even more encouraging when the end of the bar comes out warm or even hot, meaning that some heat is actually being generated. Most often, though, that is not the case.

After the spring mulching process, I like to keep some finished compost handy to add to planting holes or incorporate into soil mixes for pots. But by early fall, it’s pretty much used up. I make a point of moving the working heap into the resulting empty space, anticipating the deluge of leaves that will come in the next few months. The newest stuff ends up on the bottom of the pile, with the old leaves of the previous autumn on top. This gives me a chance to see how things are rotting, adding water to any dry layers and thoroughly aerating everything. Once done, that heap is “locked up,” becoming the in-process pile. Then I start accumulating new material for the next working heap on the other side.

By spring, the finished pile has rotted down, ready for use.

Finished compost

Finished compost

I can still recognize some of the elements — fern stems, the chicken-bony joints of the thickest campion stalks, skeletonized maple leaves — but mostly it’s blackish-brown, crumbly and perfect for mulching. I add alfalfa meal, kelp meal, lime, bone meal and other goodies to give it more nutritional value, blending it all into each wheelbarrow load. For use on potted plants, I screen the compost, throwing the coarse remnants into the current working heap. Screened compost is also perfect as a base for potting soil.

My compost is not perfect. It always contains seeds, despite my efforts to keep them out, so little surprises are always sprouting in my pots and beds — not always a bad thing. I’ve actually potted up some of the volunteers, such as hellebores, for use in the garden.

As for the brute labour aspect, it amounts to four or five days a year of moderately vigorous effort — mulching in spring, heap maintenance and turning in late summer and leaf management in the fall. Each of these is a milestone of the gardening year, the circle from life to death and back again.

The Garden in September

Ah, September — maybe my favourite month. Some years, the best weather comes in September — warm but not hot, with just enough rain to start the “fall spring,” when some spring blooming plants put out a few last flowers, when leaves start to turn colour and the garden prepares to withdraw into the relative quiet of winter.

The last few days, instead of thinking up stuff like this, I have been busting my butt in said garden. Predictions of a major rain- and windstorm motivated me to mow, clip and rake, cut down stuff and get the compost heaps into shape. That means doing something with the finished compost to make room for the millions of leaves that I will rake up in October. Out come the wheelbarrow and spade. I shovel compost into the wheelbarrow and then re-shovel it out, spreading it among perennials and under shrubs. I’m most generous in spots beneath trees, where plants have to compete with tree roots.

While the body labours, the mind wanders, and throws out some fanciful notions — such as that the garden is like a world, with peoples and nations ebbing and flowing. What happened to that patch of Irish moss (Sagina subulata)? It was crowded out by colonizing Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and is now only a memory. And these asters became refugees, fleeing the onslaught of sweet violets and snow-in-summer (Cerastium). Do plants tremble at the coming of the almighty gardener, in size 9 “duck shoes,” bearing a spade in one hand and secateurs in the other? Plants live or die by my will on this 50 x 120 foot patch (except for bindweed, that is). Legions of wood lice and centipedes flee when I come to destroy their compost heap empire. Ha!

In the end, the garden looks pretty good and the compost area is neat and tidy, ready for all those leaves. Bring on the rain and wind!

September 26, 2013

Aster frikartii "Monch"

Aster frikartii “Monch”

The Last Dance of the Garden Year

This giant pile of leaves will be compost by next summer. Having raked and  piled them, I don’t need to do much more besides rearrange the heap after it settles a bit, and (most important) poke several holes right through it once the leaves start to decompose and pack down. The holes will allow air and water into the middle of the pile, to keep the breakdown process going.

Damp leaves are much easier to handle than dry ones, which fly around and slither down the pile. Raking and leaf management are much easier after a rain. When you build the heap, sprinkle a little soil or finished compost between layers of leaves, which should be from six inches to one foot thick.

My leaves come from the trees I am always complaining about in this blog — three big Norway maples, one giant red maple (just over the fence in my neighbour’s yard), a weeping birch and a tree of heaven (or, as I think of it, tree from hell). During the gardening year, deadheads, old stalks and other debris of the perennial border and vegetable patch go into the heap, as well as a comparatively minute amount of vegetable kitchen scraps. One might think, looking at this leaf pile, and at the crumbly, black compost that I distribute around the garden every spring, that trees are the thing to have if you want compost. It is true that leaf-based compost is free of weed seeds and evil root fragments that can propagate weeds to spots that don’t have them. But you have to remember that trees suck both water and nutrients from the soil, so if you don’t have trees you don’t need as much compost or anything else to feed your gardens. Nature’s budget usually balances.

Which is why some people would argue that you really don’t need to rake leaves at all. If you leave them alone, they will eventually break down and release their nutrients, as they do in forests. No need to rake, pile or distribute compost. This lazy approach is preferable to stuffing leaves into orange plastic bags and putting them out for garbage collection, a practice that does mess with the natural nutrient budget. Whatever was extracted from your soil to grow those leaves will need to be replenished somehow, to grow lawn or petunias or tomatoes next summer. The fertilizer bag is the consequence of the leaf bag.

Free compost aside, there are other benefits to leaf-raking, similar to those of edging (see Setting the Edge, Oct. 25). A few brightly-coloured leaves decorate the garden. Loads of brown leaves make it look sad and neglected, and are apt to smother plants or cause rot. Raking reveals the edges between beds and lawns, an instantaneous visual improvement. Like edging, it can induce a meditative state. There is an artfulness to it as well — you have to develop a repertoire of techniques to tease leaves out from perennial beds without damage, move them down narrow garden paths, and herd huge masses of them to their final resting place. Big piles of leaves acquire a nearly liquid quality and can be moved quite quickly with authoritative strokes of the rake. (Don’t even think of using a leaf-blower, an abomination of noise and fossil fuel consumption).

Finally, raking leaves is good exercise for the upper body. It’s a kind of dance — the last tango of the garden year.

 

Almost finished compost