Today's Quote

“If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Black Gold: Composting for a Healthy Homestead

Years ago I began creating compost piles for my garden soil. There is something about taking that rich black organic matter and applying it to a garden space that makes a homesteader's heart jump for joy! About a year ago it occurred to me that compost was not simply for a plot of land in which I intended to grow food. I could apply this same concept to our pastures that were worn out and had sat fallow for too many years. I started creating compost piles for our pastures and each one that has received compost gets a little better and a little richer over the years. We still have quite a bit of work to do as it definitely is time consuming and hard work creating the piles for such large areas of ground. My goal is to eventually have applied at least 6 inches of compost to every square inch of our 10 acres. My husband thinks that I am little compost obsessed and this year particularly I think he is a bit worse. This year is the biggest year of composting yet. I have one large pile going for the garden, one for the goat pasture, two for the old orchard, two for the front pasture and I will be getting at least one going for the big pasture. So that is my goal this week is to do nothing but work on these compost piles which start guessed it all of the fall leaves that are blowing to the ground right now. It takes time to do this, at least is does for me. I do it by hand, rake, stall fork and wheelbarrow. Of course, the children are perfect in helping with this task as well. The oldest child rakes and has a wagon to place her leaf piles in, while the youngest jumps in every pile of leaves that she can find and personally makes sure that we work very hard (getting our daily exercise you know). She also is very good at pulling the wagon for my oldest down hill, but uphill it is a team effort. While the dried leaves of whatever trees happen to be in the pasture are great to get the pile started and add to the pile, we also need some "green" ingredients. Well, thankfully we have 3 horses that are more than willing to help out with the green ingredients and there are lots of noxious weeds in the pastures that need pulling to completely get rid of them. Yes, I pull these weeds by hand and add them to our pile. I start each pile with a layer of carbon ingredients, ie. fallen leaves and then a small layer of either manure, weeds or a combination of each. Then I repeat the process making sure that my carbon layer is the biggest. I believe the ratio is 4 wheelbarrow loads of carbon to 2 wheelbarrow loads of green stuff. The compost pile for the garden is right next to the goat barn so each morning the manure swept from the goat barn and any stray hay goes into that pile which is quite large and I am not really working on building it so much right now. It is 5 feet on each side and about 4 feet tall. By spring it will be a good size pile of rich black compost. So I am working on the pasture piles right now. This year my goal is to add at least 2-3 inches of this rich compost to the smaller pastures. The large pasture may not get quite so much as it is quite large (5 acres), but anything it gets will be a start. Of course, the chickens also have a composting operation in the chicken house and I must say the ladies are doing a fine job. I added more bedding this past week and before adding it I turned what was in there already and it was breaking down nicely with a layer of the good stuff underneath. I know you are wondering why in the world I am bothering to pull weeds from the pastures, especially by hand. I said these pastures sat fallow for many years. When pastures that were once rich and lush sit, the weeds take over robbing nutrients from the soil. So the grass that does grow get less nutrition and eventually much of it stops growing and all you are left with are weeds. Bushhogging and overseeding help, but those alone take years and years to correct the problem and then you are still left with nutrient depleted soil. Then if you miss some bushogging the weeds once again gain control. So, I pull them by hand. Not all of them at once, but I figure each patch that I get pulled is a little more toward my goal of better pastures and each year the pastures do get better and last longer for grazing with proper rotation. We also plant cover crops to help replenish the nitrogen content of the soil and this does help. Our worst area is the old orchard. This area is mostly a hillside and so most of our seed and dirt are at the bottom of the hill. The top and side of the hill have washed almost to hardpan clay which is something we battle in the south as much as farmers up north battle the rocks. With the exception of the bottom of the hill this whole area is like rock when the weather is dry and like a slip and slide when the weather is wet. All this despite the weeds that do hold some of the dirt. The trees that once made up this fine orchard have long since died off being severely diseased when we arrived. It would still be a fine place for a small orchard but first the issue of soil nutrition must be addressed. Hence, more compost piles in this area and those piles larger than ever before. So far I have one pile that is about 4 feet wide and 10 feet long and about 2 feet tall. I plan to add another foot to it today. I am not composting on the scale of some people I know who have compost piles so large that they can simply bury a cow in the middle of the pile and have that cow disappear within weeks.
This same person has his township deliver all of the yard trash to his farm. Each week the dumptrucks from town roll onto his farm to deliver their yard waste and each year he applies at least a foot of rich compost to his entire farm. So, see I am not as compost obsessed as my husband would like to believe. I also have this great need to make my own compost because then I know what goes in it. One year, I got a load of compost from a landscaping company. I spread it out in my garden and then discovered that the compost was made with diseased plants. That disease carried over into my plants. Once that is in the soil it is there to stay and the only way to combat it is to give the plants as much as they need to be as strong as they can be, possibly plant resistant varieties if you can find them and do a whole lot of praying. With the grace of God, the plants will be strong enough to resist any disease living in the soil. So that I guess is my compost story for this year and I guess I had better get busy adding to those piles of compost so that I have them ready to spread in the spring. Oh, by the I do not turn my piles. they are simply too large. Anything not composted on the top will be moved to the side to start the next pile for the next season. So get out there and get composting so you can have some of that black gold of your own! God bless and have a great day!

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