Saturday, June 19, 2010

Creating great compost workshop & biodynamic compost activator plants!

This weekend's Saturday workshop was on Compost!  Our friend Anna-Maria, long-time organic grower and CSA farmer, was here to lead the session.  She really knows her information well and although we have been composting for more than a decade and have done plenty of reading ourselves, I still came away with many new and useful ideas from her talk!  She talked about why to compost (why not?? there are just so many benefits, including fertile soil, building tilth, plant nutrient boosting, reduction of wastes going to landfills, creating closed loop systems in our own backyards, etc etc)!  She also takes a biodynamic approach to her composting, both in terms of how she layers her pile (it's like cooking for her, layering and seasoning her piles), and also in the types of plants she adds as "compost activators".  Seven useful plants recommended by Rudolf Steiner, father of biodynamic agriculture, include comfrey, yarrow, nettle, chamomile, horsetail, dandelion, and valerian.  Anna-Maria also added burdock - ideally, these are all plants you have growing in your own yard so you don't need to be dependent on outside sources.  Luckily, over the years on this property, we have encouraged all of these plants to grow here!  Even a few leaves of each, chopped up and added every few months, can do wonders for adding the proper balance to the compost pile.  Fish emulsion or seaweed can also be added...

The ideal pile would be a 30:1 ratio of carbon:nitrogen, balanced by weight not volume (she suggested if you really wanted to be precise you could leave a scale beside your compost pile!).  She talked about useful cover crops to grow, in garden beds or paths, to chop up and add to the soil or the compost pile for extra nitrogen - such as fava beans, sweet peas, clover, vetch, buckwheat, rye.  There is also a debate about whether to turn a compost pile, how often or not at all (similar to no-till gardening approaches, no-turn compost approach believes that turning disturbs the microbial life too much).  If the pile is properly layered and managed, and heats up well, then turning is not necessary - although she was clear to state that each situation is a little different, and you need to get to know your own garden, compost and conditions well to make judgements about how to manage your pile.  Anna-Maria also told us about the wonderful elderberry - which is it's own little composter as it's roots seem to create perfect compost - you can dig gently around the roots in the fall and get beautiful compost to add to your garden (not to mention eating the berries, using the flowers for wines or tincture, and more).

Now I'm off to harvest some comfrey and nettle for our compost, buy an elderberry bush, and try to plant some buckwheat and fava beans as cover crops this season!

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