Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fast or Slow Composting? Part 1

Whether you want to compost material quickly with a "Hot" pile (which requires more work on your part) or are content to let nature do most of the work, (slowly, over a longer period of time), determines how to set up your compost pile.

Hot Composting:

Why would you want to go through the extra effort required to establish and maintain a hot compost pile? Well, there are several reasons.

1. You can create a considerable amount of compost in as little as 3-4 weeks.
2. There is less smell from a hot pile.
3. Hot composting will kill most weed seeds and other pathogens.
4. Hot, quick composting preserves more nutrients in the finished compost. It is better for your plants.
5. Hot composting will reduce the size of your pile quicker. This frees up space to make more compost!

Ok, so how do we do this?

First, you need a clear site to establish your composting facility. The size will be dependent on what type of bin or container you use.

There are commercially available "Barrel Composters" that do a good job of hot composting small batches of material. For a small yard and garden owner these might be ideal but they do cost quite a bit of money. If you are handy with tools you can make these yourself and save hundreds of dollars. All you need to do is partially fill the barrel with the ideal mix of brown and green compost material (see previous Blog Composting 101), adequate moisture, and then spin the barrel a couple times each day.

Advantages: Barrel composters are neat, pest free, very quick and hot.
Disadvantages: Limited size and thus quantity of compost, require lifting material up to small door, require daily turning, can be expensive.

Standing bins require more space because you will want at least two and preferably three bins at least 4'x4'x3' in size. This example has 1/4" hardware cloth (wire) on the side and back panels. I used this method once but the wire only lasted four years before it rusted out. It was a quick build though and that is what I needed at the time. Alternately you could use pallets, cement blocks, or used deck boards (5/4"x6" floor boards for outdoor decks). Used deckboards are often available for free on Craigslist.

Advantages: Can create large quantities of compost quickly, provide long-term storage capacity, allow multiple stages of the process.
Disadvantages: Can be expensive depending on materials used, requires a lot of forking or shoveling to mix and move product and materials.

A simple and cheap, but not necessarily long-lasting, enclosure is a column made from wire fencing. These can be set up and taken down in just minutes. The wire has to be close enough together to hold the materials inside but otherwise these can work pretty good. If you use a quick release method to tie the ends together you can unwrap the pile, re-create the wire bin, an fork over the material to mix. This creates a hotter pile.

Advantages: Simple, cheap, easy to set up and take down, very well aerated, can hold as much material as you want based on the size of the bin you create.
Disadvantages: The finished compost will fall through the wire and be outside the bin, short life-span of the fence, piles tend to dry out quickly.

The last choice would be an un-enclosed pile. A loose pile would need to be about five feet across at the bottom to have enough mass to heat up properly. If you have a front end loader you can create and aerate very large piles to make tons of compost in a short time. These piles though, are often neglected and attack mice and other wildlife. They are also a bit unsightly for a yard. These are great though if you have large quantities of Green material such as grass clippings and manure. Turning the pile every day or two prevents odor.

Advantages: Massive quantities of compost can be made, easiest pile to use mechanized help (tractors, loaders, or a Bobcat), well aerated.
Disadvantages: Most susceptible to animal pests, loss of nutrients due to rain leaching, unsightly in a yard.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Meet The New Sports Drink: Pickle Juice

Saw this today on the internet sports page. Could be a cheap sports drink for those of you that do heavy endurance training or are working outside on hot days. My paternal grandfather used to drink vinegar for the same reason.

When it comes to folk remedies, professional athletes are miles ahead of the game. Whether putting butter on a burn or rubbing dirt on a cut, they'll do just about anything if they think it'll help them get through a game.

Including drinking pickle juice. The practice of downing cucumber brine isn't a new one. It's been used for decades and got media attention back in 2000 when Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder credited pickle juice as the secret weapon that helped his team stomp the Cowboys in Texas Stadium. On that day, temperatures on the field soared above 110 degrees -- the perfect conditions for a cramp-fest.

But the Philadelphia players, dosed with the neon elixir, avoided the crippling injury and won running away, 41-14. As it turns out, this is one of those rare occasions where the science caught up to the practice.

A study done last year at BYU proved the efficacy of the folksy curative. Subjects exercised to the point of mild dehydration and had cramps induced. Those who drank pickle juice felt relief within 85 seconds, almost twice as fast as water or other sports drinks.

"Pickle juice is a natural source of sodium as well as other electrolytes," says Buccaneers team nutritionist Kevin Luhrs. "Sodium is a component of sweat. The rationale is that sodium from the pickle juice helps replace sodium losses from sweat and even helps retain water in the body." Although Luhrs said he doesn't use pickle juice with any Buccaneers, he says the practice is common around the league. Dez Bryant reportedly loves it. Jason Witten even endorsed a bottled version called Pickle Juice Sport back in 2006. Packers defensive end Jarius Wynn used to swear by it.

"I used to drink pickle juice in high school to keep the cramps down," Wynn says. "It was good when I was young, especially playing in the South where is gets really hot." Wynn has switched to coconut water or other electrolyte-laden drinks. But Pickle Juice Sport founder Brandon Brooks says he provides his product to nearly two dozen teams and more than 100 professional athletes. His sales are up so much (54 percent from last year alone) that he can't produce enough of the drink to sign on with any more large retail outlets.

Now with the science to back it up, pickle juice appears to be here to stay. It probably won't hit the shelves of 7-Eleven anytime soon, but the curious can simply grab the jar of dills from the refrigerator door next time they wake up with a knot in their calf.

Toxic Levels of Arsenic Found in Popular Juice Brands

    Arsenic has long been recognized as a poison and a contaminant in drinking water, but now concerns are growing about arsenic in foods, especially in fruit juices that are a mainstay for children. Controversy over arsenic in apple juice made headlines as the school year began when Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” told viewers that tests he’d commissioned found 10 of three dozen apple-juice samples with total arsenic levels exceeding 10 parts per billion (ppb). There’s no federal arsenic threshold for juice or most foods, though the limit for bottled and public water is 10 ppb. The Food and Drug Administration, trying to reassure consumers about the safety of apple juice, claimed that most arsenic in juices and other foods is of the organic type that is “essentially harmless.”
    But an investigation by Consumer Reports shows otherwise. Our study, including tests of apple and grape juice, a scientific analysis of federal health data, a consumer poll, and interviews with doctors and other experts, finds the following:
  • Roughly 10 percent of our juice samples, from five brands, had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
  • One in four samples had lead levels higher than the FDA’s bottled-water limit of 5 ppb. As with arsenic, no federal limit exists for lead in juice.
  • Apple and grape juice constitute a significant source of dietary exposure to arsenic, according to our analysis of federal health data from 2003 through 2008.
  • Children drink a lot of juice. Thirty-five percent of children 5 and younger drink juice in quantities exceeding pediatricians’ recommendations, our poll of parents shows.
  • Mounting scientific evidence suggests that chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below water standards can result in serious health problems.
  • Inorganic arsenic has been detected at disturbing levels in other foods, too, which suggests that more must be done to reduce overall dietary exposure.
What the Tests Found
    We tested juice from bottles, cans, and juice boxes that we bought in three states. We went shopping in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York in August and September, buying 28 apple juices and three grape juices. Our samples came from ready-to-drink bottles, juice boxes, and cans of concentrate. For most juices, we bought three different lot numbers to assess variability. (For some juices, we couldn’t find three lots, so we tested one or two.) In all, we tested 88 samples.
    Five samples of apple juice and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 ppb federal limit for bottled and drinking water. Levels in the apple juices ranged from 1.1 to 13.9 ppb, and grape-juice levels were even higher, 5.9 to 24.7 ppb. Most of the total arsenic in our samples was inorganic, our tests showed. As for lead, about one fourth of all juice samples had levels at or above the 5-ppb limit for bottled water. The top lead level for apple juice was 13.6 ppb; for grape juice, 15.9 ppb.

Apple Juice
The following brands had at least one sample of apple juice that exceeded 10 ppb:
  • Apple & Eve
  • Great Value (Walmart)
  • Mott’s
And these brands had one or more samples of apple juice that exceeded 5 ppb of lead:
  • America’s Choice (A&P)
  • Gerber
  • Gold Emblem (CVS)
  • Great Value
  • Joe’s Kids (Trader Joe’s)
  • Minute Maid
  • Seneca
  • Walgreens
Grape Juice
For grape juice, at least one sample from Walgreens and Welch’s exceeded 10 ppb. At least one sample of grape juice exceeding 5 ppb of lead came from:
  • Gold Emblem (CVS)
  • Walgreens
  • Welch’s
    Our findings provide a spot check of a number of local juice aisles, but they can’t be used to draw general conclusions about arsenic or lead levels in any particular brand. Even within a single tested brand, levels of arsenic and lead sometimes varied widely.
View the complete test results for all 88 samples.
    Arsenic-tainted soil in U.S. orchards is a likely source of contamination for apples, and finding lead with arsenic in juices that we tested is not surprising. Even with a ban on lead-arsenate insecticides, “we are finding problems with some Washington state apples, not because of irresponsible farming practices now but because lead-arsenate pesticides that were used here decades ago remain in the soil,” says Denise Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Washington who has tested apple juices and discovered elevated arsenic levels even in brands labeled organic.
    Over the years, a shift has occurred in how juice sold in America is produced. To make apple juice, manufacturers often blend water with apple-juice concentrate from multiple sources. For the past decade, most concentrate has come from China. Concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there, and several Chinese provinces that are primary apple-growing regions are known to have high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.
    A much bigger test than ours would be needed to establish any correlation between elevated arsenic or lead levels and the juice concentrate’s country of origin. Samples we tested included some made from concentrate from multiple countries including Argentina, China, New Zealand, South Africa, and Turkey; others came from a single country. A few samples solely from the United States had elevated levels of lead or arsenic, and others did not. The same was true for samples containing only Chinese concentrate.
    The FDA has been collecting its own data to see whether it should set guidelines to continue to ensure the safety of apple juice, a spokeswoman told us.
    The Juice Products Association said, “We are committed to providing nutritious and safe fruit juices to consumers and will comply with limits established by the agency.”
A Chronic Problem
    Arsenic has been notoriously used as a poison since ancient times. A fatal poisoning would require a single dose of inorganic arsenic about the weight of a postage stamp. But chronic toxicity can result from long-term exposure to much lower levels in food, and even to water that meets the 10-ppb drinking-water limit.
    A 2004 study of children in Bangladesh suggested diminished intelligence based on test scores in children exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels above 5 ppb, says study author Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., a professor of environmental health sciences and pharmacology at Columbia University. He’s now conducting similar research with children living in New Hampshire and Maine, where arsenic levels of 10 to 100 ppb are commonly found in well water, to determine whether better nutrition in the United States affects the results.
People with private wells may face greater risks than those on public systems because they’re responsible for testing and treating their own water. In Maine, where almost half the population relies on private wells, the USGS found arsenic levels in well water as high as 3,100 ppb.
    And a study published in 2011 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the long-term effects of low-level exposure on more than 300 rural Texans whose groundwater was estimated to have arsenic at median levels below the federal drinking-water standard. It found that exposure was related to poor scores in language, memory, and other brain functions. “I suspect there is an awful lot of chronic, low-level arsenic poisoning going on that’s never properly diagnosed.”—Michael Harbut, M.D.
Symptoms of Chronic Exposure
    Chronic arsenic exposure can initially cause gastrointestinal problems and skin discoloration or lesions. Exposure over time, which the World Health Organization says could be five to 20 years, could increase the risk of various cancers and high blood pressure, diabetes, and reproductive problems.
    Signs of chronic low-level arsenic exposure can be mistaken for other ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Usually the connection to arsenic exposure is not made immediately, as Sharyn Duffy of Geneseo, N.Y., discovered. She visited a doctor in 2007 about pain and skin changes on the sole of her left foot. She was referred to a podiatrist and eventually received a diagnosis of hyperkeratosis, in which lesions develop or thick skin forms on the palms or soles of the feet. It can be among the earliest symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning. But she says it was roughly two years before she was finally referred to a neurologist, who suggested testing for arsenic. She had double the typical levels.
    “Testing for arsenic isn’t part of a routine checkup,” says Duffy, a retiree. “When you come in with symptoms like I had, ordering that kind of test probably wouldn’t even occur to most doctors.” Michael Harbut, M.D., chief of the environmental cancer program at Karmanos Institute in Detroit, says, “Given what we know about the wide range of arsenic exposure sources we have in this country, I suspect there is an awful lot of chronic, low-level arsenic poisoning going on that’s never properly diagnosed.”
    Emerging research suggests that when arsenic exposure occurs in the womb or in early childhood, it not only increases cancer risks later in life but also can cause lasting harm to children’s developing brains and endocrine and immune systems, leading to other diseases, too.
    Case in point: From 1958 through 1970, residents of Antofagasta, Chile, were exposed to naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water that peaked at almost 1,000 ppb before an arsenic removal plant was installed. Studies led by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that people born during that period who had probable exposure in the womb and during early childhood had a lung-cancer death rate six times higher than those in their age group elsewhere in Chile. Their rate of death in their 30s and 40s from another form of lung disease was almost 50 times higher than for people without that arsenic exposure.
    “Recent studies have shown that early-childhood exposure to arsenic carries the most serious long-term risk,” says Joshua Hamilton of the Marine Biological Laboratory. “So even though reducing arsenic exposure is important for everyone, we need to pay special attention to protecting pregnant moms, babies, and young kids.”

Other Dietary Exposures

    In addition to juice, foods including chicken, rice, and even baby food have been found to contain arsenic—sometimes at higher levels than the amounts found in juice. Brian Jackson, Ph.D., an analytical chemist and research associate professor at Dartmouth College, presented his findings at a June 2011 scientific conference in Aberdeen, Scotland. He reported finding up to 23 ppb of arsenic in lab tests of name-brand jars of baby food, with inorganic arsenic representing 70 to 90 percent of those total amounts.
    Similar results turned up in a 2004 study conducted by FDA scientists in Cincinnati, who found arsenic levels of up to 24 ppb in baby food, with sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, and peaches containing only the inorganic form. A United Kingdom study published in 2008 found that the levels of inorganic arsenic in 20-ounce packets of dried infant rice cereals ranged from 60 to 160 ppb. Rice-based infant cereals are often the first solid food that babies eat.
    Rice frequently contains high levels of inorganic arsenic because it is among plants that are unusually efficient at taking up arsenic from the soil and incorporating it in the grains people eat. Moreover, much of the rice produced in the U.S. is grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, on land formerly used to grow cotton, where arsenical pesticides were used for decades.
    “Initially, in some regions rice planted there produced little grain due to these arsenical pesticides, but farmers then bred a type of rice specifically designed to produce high yields on the contaminated soil,” says Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. Meharg studies human exposures to arsenic in the environment. His research over the past six years has shown that U.S. rice has among the highest average inorganic arsenic levels in the world—almost three times higher than levels in Basmati rice imported from low-arsenic areas of Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Rice from Egypt has the lowest levels of all.
    Infant rice cereal for the U.S. market is generally made from U.S. rice, Meharg says, but labeling usually doesn’t specify country of origin. He says exposure to arsenic through infant rice cereals could be reduced greatly if cereal makers used techniques that don’t require growing rice in water-flooded paddies or if they obtained rice from low-arsenic areas. His 2007 study found that median arsenic levels in California rice were 41 percent lower than levels in rice from the south-central U.S.
Read the full article from Consumer Reports

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Composting 101

    Over the course of several postings (Fast Composting) (Slow Composting) I’ll tell you all I know about composting.  I won’t claim to know everything but I have been actively composting for at least forty years so I do know quite a bit. Much of what I have learned through experience and experimenting does not agree 100% with what many other “experts” will say.  So, as in all things, you’ll have to read what I write and do some research on your own, and then decide what works best for you.

    As most of you know I was a Soldier from April 1978 to August 2014.  So I moved quite often; on average about every 34 months.  Even so, with a few exceptions, I have continued to have at least a small garden and to make and use compost in my gardens. (Compost Bin)

    So what exactly is compost?  Very simply it is organic material (anything that was once living) that has been allowed to biodegrade through microbial action. In other words, it has rotted. During the composting process, various other life forms (worms, insects, bacteria, fungi) eat and digest the organic material (leaves, grass, sawdust, food scraps, etc.) and then excrete their own waste products.     
    As well, most of those life forms go through their own accelerated life cycle and the compost contains their decomposing bodies. It is mostly the digestive process of the micro-animals and the colonization of various fungi and bacteria that produce the nutrients contained in the compost.

    Think of it this way.  What is the difference between the grass, hay, and grain that a cow eats and its manure?  Mostly - the inclusion of the stomach acids and the intestinal bacteria (which also adds nitrogen).  Otherwise it is the same stuff coming out as went in.  There is no transmutation of elements (alchemy) involved here.

    There are several different methods of composting but only two major processes; aerobic composting and anaerobic composting. Aerobic means “with oxygen” and anaerobic means “without oxygen”. For our purposes we will only talk about aerobic composting but I’ll briefly explain anaerobic composting here.

    - Anaerobic composting is also sometimes called “digestion” because that is what happens in the stomach and intestines of animals.  A completely different class of bacteria is involved in anaerobic digestion; they can only live in a low or no-oxygen environment.  By-products of anaerobic digestion are such things as methane gas and sulfur-dioxide; the two principle parts of flatulence. In a controlled environment, organic materials can be turned into energy by use of a “methane digester”, a large anaerobic composter that produces large amounts of flammable methane gas, which can be used to run an electric generator for instance. Suitable for large dairy farms perhaps, but not so much for the back-yard gardener.

    Aerobic composting is what we are interested in. All organic material will break down, decompose, over time.  But what we want to do is speed up the process and retain the resultant nutrients.  This requires intentional composting.

    Efficient composting requires five things: 1. Carbon-rich material (the food); 2. Nitrogen-rich material (the energy); 3. Moisture (all living things need water); 4. Oxygen (the life forms we are interested in must breath oxygen); 5. Heat (life processes slow down when cold).

Let’s look at each of these:

Carbon-rich material. These are often referred to as the “brown” components of compost.  Carbon-rich materials are such things as dead leaves in the fall, straw, wood chips and sawdust, shredded paper and cardboard, and other dead, dried out plant material. This material will be the bulk of your compost pile; in fact it should be at a 30 to 1 ratio with the Nitrogen-rich material. The carbon-rich material provides the food and shelter to the various life forms in the compost pile. They also create the air spaces needed to maintain a suitable level of oxygen in the pile. Fungi and bacteria will immediately colonize the “brown” material and start to break it down into its chemical component parts.  It is this fungi and bacteria smorgasbord that attracts slightly higher life forms such as insects, worms, and other microbes

Nitrogen-rich material. These are often referred to as the “green” components of compost. Nitrogen-rich materials are such things as animal manure and urine, green grass clippings, green plants and leaves, and kitchen scraps.  This green material provides the energy the various life forms in the compost pile need to maintain there digestive activity.  Too much green material in a compost pile, such as a huge pile of green grass clippings, and bacteria immediately use up the oxygen and die off.  The pile is then colonized by anaerobic digesters and you end up with a slimy, smelly pile of goo. Green material should be at a 1 to 30 ratio with the brown material. 
Moisture. All living things need water to survive but too much water is no good.  Too much water in a compost pile fills in the tiny air spaces and suffocates the living organisms. Likewise, if the compost material is too dry the composting process will slow down or halt. Your compost material should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge.  If you can squeeze water out of the composting material, it is too wet. If it is too wet you can do a couple things. One is to turn the pile to mix the drier outer layers with the wetter inner layers.  Hopefully this will balance it out. Or, you can add more dry materials to soak up some of the moisture. If the compost pile is too dry, you can spray it with water while you turn the pile to moisten the material evenly. REMEMBER-chlorinated water will kill microbial organisms.  You don’t want to do that.  So if you are on chlorinated water you will need to fill up buckets or a kiddy pool with water and let it sit out in the sun for a couple days to de-chlorinate.

Oxygen. Not all living things thrive on oxygen but the ones we are interested in do.  Therefore the more oxygen you can get into the pile the better.  This is most often accomplished by “turning” the pile.  I have a four bin compost set-up so turning the pile is as easy as forking it out of one bin and into another.  As I do this I shake and “fluff” up the material so there is lots of air space in between. DO NOT pack down your compost pile.  It will settle on its own but what you really want is lots of open space in the material.  The more often you turn your pile the faster it will compost (all other things being equal).  That is the purpose and success of the rotating compost barrel systems you can buy.  Each day you go out and turn the crank a couple times and the compost is aerated. 
Heat. Most living organisms prefer to be warm as opposed to being cold.  The micro-organisms in your compost pile are no different.  The heat given off by the billions (trillions?) of micro-organisms in your compost pile will heat the material up to over 120 degrees and depending on the materials and oxygen content even up to 150 degrees. This is desired because it helps to kill weed seeds and other undesired pathogens. In the summer it is not too hard to keep the pile warm, although normal evaporation of the moisture from the pile will tend to cool it down quite a bit.  In the winter, especially if you live in the north, it is difficult to maintain any warmth at all and the composting process crawls to a stop.  Deep inside the pile there is probably still some activity though. You can increase the heat by ensuring there is a proper Brown to Green ratio, by frequently turning the pile to add oxygen, by placing the pile in a sunny location, and by wrapping the pile in clear plastic in the cooler months.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Think Things are Bad Now? Just Wait!

ROME (AP) — The United Nations has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet's land resources, finding in a report Monday that a quarter of all land is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world's growing population is to be fed.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world's expected 9 billion-strong population. That amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of beef and other livestock.

But as it is, most available land is already being farmed, and in ways that often decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water.

That means that to meet the world's future food needs, a major "sustainable intensification" of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, the FAO said in "State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture."

FAO's director-general Jacques Diouf said increased competition over land for growing biofuels, coupled with climate change and poor farming practices, had left key food-producing systems at risk of being unable to meet human needs in 2050.

"The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable," he told reporters at FAO's Rome headquarters. "Remedial actions need to be taken now. We simply cannot continue on a course of business as usual."

The report was released Monday, as delegates from around the world meet in Durban, South Africa, for a two-week U.N. climate change conference aimed at breaking the deadlock on how to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The report found that climate change coupled with poor farming practices had contributed to a decrease in productivity of the world's farmland following the boon years of the Green Revolution, when crop yields soared thanks to new technologies, pesticides and the introduction of high-yield crops.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, the world's cropland grew by just 12 percent between 1961 and 2009, but food productivity increased by 150 percent.

But the U.N. report found that rates of growth have been slowing down in many areas and today are only half of what they were at the peak of the Green Revolution.

It found that 25 percent of the world's land is now "highly degraded," with soil erosion, water degradation and biodiversity loss. Another 8 percent is moderately degraded, while 36 percent is stable or slightly degraded and 10 percent is ranked as "improving."

The rest of the Earth's surface is either bare or covered by inland water bodies.

Some examples of areas at risk: Western Europe, where highly intensive agriculture has led to pollution of soil and aquifers and a resulting loss of biodiversity; In the highlands of the Himalayas, the Andes, the Ethiopian plateau and southern Africa, soil erosion has been coupled with an increased intensity of floods; In southeast and eastern Asia's rice-based food systems, land has been abandoned thanks in part to a loss of the cultural value of it.

The report found that water around the world is becoming ever more scarce and salinated, while groundwater is becoming more polluted by agricultural runoff and other toxins.

In order to meet the world's water needs in 2050, more efficient irrigation will be necessary since currently most irrigation systems perform well below their capacity, FAO said.

The agency called for new farming practices like integrated irrigation and fish-farm systems to meet those demands, as well as overall investment in agricultural development.

The price tag deemed necessary for investments through 2050: $1 trillion in irrigation water management alone for developing countries, with another $160 billion for soil conservation and flood control.

Learn now how to produce your own food!
It is only going to get worse in the coming years.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter is Coming - Gardening is Done?

When fall came and the edible plants started dying off from frost - my family's garden, and our neighbors' gardens, were pretty much just abandoned and left alone through the winter. Weeds, much hardier than tomato plants, continued to grow and set seeds.  These fell onto the soil and were next year's weed problem. What I have found is that a bit of laziness in the fall and winter causes you to do much more work the following spring and summer.  What can/should you do in the fall and winter?

1. Thoroughly weed your garden and remove all old plants (throw them on your compost pile). Any plant pests you had will "over winter" on the plants they infested during the growing cycle. You don't want them to survive the winter and begin their life cycle again in the spring. Throw your plants in the compost pile so any residual nutrients can be recycled back into your garden.

2. Before it freezes, screen and turn your compost pile. I have a four bin composting set-up at my house in Pennsylvania. Each bin is 4x4x4 feet, so it holds 64 cubic feet of material. One bin holds finished compost, one bin holds raw materials, one bin is actively composting, and right now the fourth bin is empty.

Once or twice a year I dig out the active compost bin and sift all the semi-composted material through a screen.  The screen is 1/4" hardware cloth over a 2x3 frame.  I shovel the partially composted material onto the screen, give it a few shakes, and the finer material falls through to my wagon.  The uncomposted, larger material gets tossed into an open bin. By the time I have screened the entire bin I usually have a full wagon of fine material (20 cubic feet) and another bin 1/3 full of material that has only begun to break down. This will now be the bottom layer of my next batch of compost. This will be the "worm layer" since worms will quickly move up into this layer of "worm food".

    Next I run the raw material through my mulcher/chipper with the screens removed (or it clogs up real easy) and throw this stuff in the partially filled bin. This will usually fill the new bin close to the top. I'll cover this bin with something water proof (I use old shower curtains and picnic table table cloths) and it is good to go for the winter. Since it was freshly aerated the pile will start to heat up from the biologic activity of the composting process.  But once it starts going down below freezing at night that will slow down and eventually almost stop.  That's ok, it is just dormant; once it warms up in the spring the composting process will start up again.
    The fine material that I screened out will go in the finished compost bin if there is room or it will go directly into the garden.

3. Till under your garden. Many plant pests in your garden will lay their eggs in the soil, on the plants, or the pest is in the larva or grub stage living just beneath the surface of the soil.  Tilling the soil, by machine or by hand, will disrupt the life cycle of these pests.  Some will be buried too deep to survive, some will be exposed to killing freezes, and some will be killed by the tilling process.  You won't get rid of all of them but you will greatly reduce their numbers.

Tilling-under leaves
Once I have removed all the old plant material, I spread a one inch layer of compost on the garden and all the leaves I can rake up. I have a DR Leaf and Lawn Vacuum system but there are lots of other brands out there that are just as good or better.  If you have a smaller yard (mine is 3.1 acres) you can just use a rake. The lawn vacuum I have runs the sucked up leaves and grass through a mulcher and blows that into a wagon behind my lawn tractor so it is even easier to work into the soil. 


Soil loaded up with Fall leaves
Soil biological activity will slow down during the winter but it doesn't stop. Loading up the soil with organic material in the fall will allow most of it to bio-degrade over the winter.  If you put all this into the soil in the spring it would tie up all the nitrogen in the soil and your plants would suffer. The micro-organisms that break down organic material into plant food use many of the same nutrients that plants need to grow. The high level of organic material also helps the soil to resist erosion either from the wind or rain. If you use raised beds, and I always recommend raised beds for home food production, this will refill the beds.  

Lastly, after all the previous is done, I like to put down a thick layer of top mulch (usually ground up leaves and grass) to cover the growing bed.  This helps to moderate temperature swings in the soil and usually keeps it from freezing down below 2-3 inches. That keeps the worms happy and if your soil has happy worms, you have good soil.

This process gives you the opportunity to clean up your yard, put that yard waste to good use, fertilize your garden soil for free (I rely 100% on compost, I never buy fertilizer), and makes the garden look nice for the winter.  Come spring, all you need to do is uncover the garden so it can warm up and then plant.  No tilling should be needed and therefore the worms and other soil organisms are not disturbed. One technique I have used successfully is to leave the top mulch on the garden but cover the garden with clear plastic sheeting to warm it up.  This way I have a pre-mulched garden.  I lay down planks or square paver stones to make my walkways between the beds. I have a mix of raised beds and open, traditional garden space.  But I use the traditional garden space as if it were raised beds by laying in the walkways.

Don't have a compost facility yet?  What are you waiting for?

Composting can be very easy, just easy, a bit of a chore, difficult, or a full-time job. I would have to rate my method as "a bit of a chore" because I am only home four weeks out of the year right now. Composting is a big subject area so I will devote my next posting to the art and science of Composting

The simpliest of composters is nothing more than this.