Saturday, July 30, 2011


Photos are from the Organic garden donated by Alice Waters to the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley CA - In this garden urban students have an opportunity to discover the learning gardening skills. More about Alice Waters here:

Also photos from the medical center built at the F.A.M.E. center near Arusha Tanzania - serving tribal people over a wide area .

Students planting garden seeds

I had a love hate relationship with my big red Sears garden chipper. It was clunky and deafening loud - but it could take my garden debris and turn it into beautiful small chips that broke down quickly and made fine mulch for my plants. But it got to be more trouble than it was worth – One part after another broke due to metal fatigue due to vibration and I ended up spending way too much time keeping it running. So I have returned to composting my gardening waste. Its slower but it is satisfying.

Martin Luther King Garden School - Berkeley CA

In nature, fallen leaves and accumulated fallen plant material slowly breaks down and forms humus – nutrient rich organic material that replenishes soil to make it fertile. This is the natural way by which key nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem. There is some wholesome and "real" about walking past my compost pile and catching a little whiff of sweet aerobic compost in-the-making... its like the smell of walking in a woodland after a rainstorm when the natural plant cycle is in full swing.

Students learning how to make compost

In theory the process is simple: Make sure that the compost pile gets plenty of oxygen. If it is, it will have a pleasant earthy smell. If it is deficient in oxygen ( anaerobic ) if will smell like decaying manure… You have to add enough but not too much water for the compost organisms to function… Some compostable materials are high in carbon (such as sawdust, cardboard, and dry leaves ) and other materials are high in nitrogen ( such as lawn clippings, manure, and fresh garden clippings )- both have to be present and more or less in the right balance. If all three of these conditions are met, the good bacteria and fungi will be active and their metabolism will release heat to about 130F-140F. ( This also kills weed seeds.) Making compost is all about finding the right balance – not too much and not too little – but just enough of everything… Then just be patient and let it happen...

One of the speciality grardens at MLK School

Now some specific details:

1. The bacteria and fungi come naturally from the air - When they digest or "oxidize" plant products - they need carbon rich materials which serve as an energy source. Nitrogen is used in making protein. Most of the compostable material should be carbon-rich with just enough nitrogen to fascilitate the decomposition process.

Garden work team - MLK

Composting will slow down if there is not enough nitrogen. Excess nitrogen can be detected by the presence of ammonia gas .Generally if too much nitrogen rich materials the mixture gets slimy and anaerobic. If this happens add torn pieces of cardboard ( high C ) to quickly put the system back in balance.

The garden also demonstrates the growth of highly nutritious but relatively unknown vegetables: Amaranth

If a fresh pile of stuff is not generating heat - even when moistened – it doesn’t have anough high nitrogen material – add manure or a small amount of ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulphate which is a chemical source of nitrogen. ( half a cup to a couple cubic feet of fresh compost should activate the bacteria and fungus)

2. If you increase the surface area of the material to be composted it will speed things up. If you can chop or chip the material - good! - if you can’t, it will just take more time. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the microorganisms to digest the material and grow. Insects and earthworms are a help in breaking down materials into smaller particles that bacteria and fungi can digest. Water is essential. Reach your hand in to sample "the feel" – it should never be dry, not should it feel slimy and sticky. Use the squeeze test – if it feels like a wrung out sponge that’s just right! If the water level is too low the activity of the compost organisms will decline. If the pile does get too wet just add more dry material to bring it back to balance.

MLK school - students learn to cook what they grow...

4. What can be composted?:

From the Garden... 
Fallen Leaves, Cut tall grass or lawn clippings, Garden clippings, 
 Weeds (without ripe seeds) 

From the Kitchen... 
Fruit scraps 
Vegetable trimmings 
Egg shells (crushed) 
Tea bags 
Coffee grounds with filters 
Shredded paper,

Paper products ( high carbon ): Cardboard, torn up newspapers...

DO NOT include... 
Meat, fish and bones 
Fats and oils 
Dairy products 
Pet waste 
Cheese, meat or other sauces 

... Animal products attract, rodents, flies, rotten fruit attracts fruit flies

F.A.M.E. Medical Center garden -Elephants sometimes come in the night to graze - they are driven off by beating pans to make noise!

5. Getting started… Whatever method you choose, do the following: – add to it freely – watch the balance of materials – water as needed – turn to give plenty of air by turning and mixing every 2 weeks– variety is good – watch your Carbon - Nitrogen balance

a. Make a free standing pile of compostable materials in a corner of your yard

b. Buy an enclosed plastic composting container

c. Construct a wire screen cylinder as large as you need for your compost system ( my preference )

6. Once every couple of weeks its good to use a garden fork to remix the compost pile - this aerates and brings materials from the outside into the active zone...

7. Compost is ready to be used when it is dark in color, crumbly and has a good "earthy" smell. You can sift the compost to eliminate material which has not yet finished composting - but in most cases that isn't necessary... If you want you can return unfinished materials back to the compost pile to extract every last bit of humous.

F.A.M.E. Medical Center garden - fertilized with compost - near Arusha Tanzania

8. Worms! Adding worms to your system will speed the break down of the materials and give the soil organisms some help. Only minor allowances need to be made to your method...

BoldUse "redworms" (Eisenia foetida) not regular earthworms. These guys naturally live in compost or manure but usually don't ( usually) burrow into the soil. They are happiest at temperatures between 50F and 70F. Redworms process food quickly and turn food wastes into nutrient-rich "castings." Worm castings are an excellent fertilizer additive for gardens or potted plants. 

F.A.M.E. Medical Center garden - Raw mineral soil benefits greatly by adding organic compost!

Redworms are added to the compost system benefit from shredded moist cardboard and/or moistened paper into which they burrow The worms will gradually reproduce or die according to the amount of food they receive. A sudden addition of a large amount of food waste may attract fruit flies, so increases should be made gradually. In a healthy box, worms can build large populations and consume four to six pounds of food scraps per week.

There is a Sikh temple near my home that provide many meals each day. Rather than pay for scraps to be hauled away they have developed an elaborate pest free, odor free system for converting the food waste into worm castings that are added to their garden to produce more vegetables! It is a marvel!

Sikh temple ( Gurdwara ) north west part of FremontCalifornia

How do you find "redworms" (Eisenia foetida)? Compost worms are often called “red worms” or “red wigglers.” You can sometimes find them in fishing bate stores - but not all fishing worms are red wigglers. You can get a start from another "worm com poster" or buy them from a worm farm - easy to find on the internet. Start with one half to one pound of worms, or two nice big handfuls. You will come to think of your worms as little red friends!