Friday, March 27, 2009

GARDENING101: Compost

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/27/09)

As a boy during the early 1930's, I often went with my father in his 1933 Franklin into San Fernando Valley to fetch large burlap bags of oak leaf mold for his camellias and roses. San Fernando Valley then was a land of farms and ranches dotted with a few small towns. Along with selling fresh fruits and vegetables at roadside stands, the farmers often sold oak leaf mold they'd gathered underneath their live oaks trees which were perpetual composting piles.

Composting is recapitulating the wisdom of those live oak trees, taking the things we no longer use, dropping them and letting them decompose into useful nutrients for the garden. With the exceptions of meat, oil, metals, pet and human feces, and plastic, almost anything organic can be used in a composting pile although some things decompose faster than others. Pieces of wood, tree branches, large stems, avocado and citrus skins, fruit pits, and newly dropped pine needles take a long time decomposing.

Fundamentally, composting is a disintegration of organic material, decay and rot, into nutrients for plants. In addition to organic material, aeration and oxygen are necessary. Aeration is a fancy latinate word for airing, turning compost with a pitch fork so that air and oxygen can get into the pile to fuel the microbes. Also, aeration removes heat, water, and other gases from the pile.

In addition to oxygen, compost requires heat, and, generally speaking, the most efficient temperature for composting is around 110º F to 150º F. The higher the temperature the more pathogens, diseases, weed seeds, and insect larvae are destroyed. Thermometers are available. A hand will do, stuck in the compost. If it's too hot for comfort, turn it with a pitch fork. No big deal.

Sometimes the compost pile heats up to 160º F. When that happens, the heat may cause the microbes to go dormant or die which means that the composting process will stop because the microbes do the decomposing. They're the worker bees in composting.

Heat as well as moisture can be controlled with the pitchfork. The most useful instrument for moisture assessment is the human hand. If
it's waterlogged or dripping, it's too wet. The easiest way to find the proper moisture level is to squeeze the material in a bare hand, if it doesn't drip but feels moist like a wrung out wash cloth, the material has the right moisture. Hands can always be washed. Besides, if people don't like to get their hands dirty, they shouldn't be gardening and are probably avoiding life anyway.

If the material is too dry, add a little water while turning the material. If it's too wet, add dry material while turning the pile.

As with cooking in the kitchen, cooking compost in the backyard requires the right recipe, a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. When the ratio is less than 30:1, such as 15:1 in table scraps, the material is called green and more than 30:1, such as 80:1 in old leaves, it's called brown. Examples of brown materials are dry leaves, sawdust, bark, straw, dry bread, egg shells, and shredded paper, of nitrogen materials vegetable and fruit scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and manure. Since almost all organic material contains both carbon and nitrogen, probably the best measurement at the composter is 3:1 of brown to green. A good measuring instrument is a shovel.

If nothing happens, as in no heat in the compost, that means too much carbon material. If it begins to stink and go putrid, that means too much nitrogen material. If nothing's happening, a trip to a local coffee house to fetch a bag of coffee grounds will help the pile to become a microborama. If the bin begins to stink, throw in some sawdust or dried bedding from a horse stall. When using manure, as in wine, use only vintage manure, never serving manure before its time.

The equipment needed is a pitchfork, a hand, and a shovel along with a bin. The material needed is water, air, and organic material. In a few months, compost. Décadence joyeuse.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

GARDENING 101: Gardening Counter-intelligence

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/22/09)

As young soldiers, really adolescents, trained in counter-intelligence and covert operations, we were tutored in surveillance, a watch and ward vigilance for espionage and sabotage. Such training has been invaluable in gardening, surveilling pests who sabotage a garden.

I can still hear the captain. "The quiet ones, the ones to whom no one pays mind, the ones that slip by unnoticed, they'll bear watching." Aphids don't call attention to themselves, slip by unnoticed, and bear watching. Sucking the life out of a plant, they're found on the underside of the leaves, not on top where they can be easily seen.

He also talked about twitches, furrowed brows, and squints, the small signs signaling the stress of risk. In gardening it's a leaf's curl, a slight discoloration, and a stem's canker. Signs of a far deeper and far more devastating threat are eyes turned glassy and pupils narrowed or leaves dropped, stems withered, and plants suckled dry by parasites.

Surveillance is one of the gardener's first responsibilities, every morning and evening patrolling the garden with eyes peeled, looking for the quiet ones. On these patrols through the garden, it's best is to poke underneath the leaves while sniffing out lurking culprits . Check litter, such as small piles of leaves or pieces of wood. Scatter them, bend over to peek underneath, and then dispose of them. A principle task for a gardener is to snoop. Enjoying a garden isn't enough. Inspecting it is crucial because only an inspected garden will thrive to be enjoyed.

At the first hint of sabotage, don't hope the problem will take care of itself. It won't. It'll get worse which means that the gardener on patrol must come prepared, as in well-armed with a spray gun and a hose equipped with a nozzle. Never allow the enemy an avenue of escape. Ne pas faire de quartier.

Two sets of eyes are better than one so, if possible, take along another snoop while on patrol.

Never use ammunition that afflicts the garden, such as friendly fire poisons. Human beings are singular amongst animals in that they foul their own nests, such as spraying poison on their gardens and food. At the first sign of under-sided sabotage, turn the nozzle down to a sharp stream and wash the insects into oblivion. If they appear again, spray them with insecticidal soap, offing the under-sided saboteurs without poisoning the garden. If they appear again, off'em again until they are no more. Sans merci.

Saboteurs surprise, striking from secluded and secret lairs, so it's important to find their hidden cells and destroy them. Grasshoppers lay their eggs underground in the fall so that they can strike by surprise in the spring, suddenly flying out of the sun, like dive bombers in a blitzkrieg, devouring a garden.

Turning the soil with a spade helps expose the nests of eggs to the air, destroying them. But spading is not enough. Nests of eggs will always be missed. Happily, grasshopper nymphs have a thing for wheat bran, and if the wheat bran is mixed with NoLo, their voracious appetite will be their undoing. Always encounter enemies at their weaknesses. The grasshopper's vice is gluttony.

NoLo is short for Nosema locustae spores which are fatal to grasshoppers but harmful to no one else. NoLo can be purchased in the armaments section at local nurseries or over the internet.

Finally, in the fight against sabotage, allies, such as, green lacewings, lady bugs, and praying mantises are always useful. More eyes and mouths will find and devour more saboteurs. These allies can be bought, but as with all bought friends, they're fickle and tend to fly away. So release them at dusk so after a night's rest they can ravage at first light. These fickle friends can be kept in a garden with the hospitality of such plants as dill and yarrow.

The captain, a classics scholar in civilian life, often quoted Demosthenes warning the Athenians of Macedonian perfidy, "There's one safeguard known generally to the wise. What is it? Distrust." Vigilance is one safeguard known to wise gardeners keeping their gardens safe from saboteurs.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009