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!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A different perspective...

Seeing Stinson Beach from the mountainside, the town shows itself to be built on a sandbar at the mouth of the Bolinas Bay … Between the open ocean and the estuary, a long salt water lagoon has been formed with homes built on both sides.

Overview of Bolinas town and Bolinas Bay

Driving here, north from San Francisco, we leave the freeways and travel a country road through wild heath land with a thick low growing jumble of California Lilac,Coyote Brush, Yarrow, Seaside Daisy, and Monkey Flower ... and other such plants as can withstand this sometimes moist, sometimes dry, often windy, often swirling fog rising from the ocean. Travel takes less us about 90 minutes… but it is a world apart in the pace of life. Here, the flow of time in set by the pulse of the breaking surf and the call of sea birds…

7AM - looking east across the inner lagoon

We have spent this week with Judy’s brother and sister and spouses in an elegant rented home perched on the edge of the lagoon - We wake each morning to lapping water sounds, clouds on the mountains above us normally melt away by mid morning… Summer daytime temperatures remain in the low 70's. Our days are spent in conversation, walking excursions, exploration of the surrounding area, reading, and eating – a lot of good healthy eating! My wife Judy has been the only one bold enough to swim across the lagoon – and yesterday she swam three cycles, over and back, with form and grace…

Judy - swimming the lagoon

So how does this fog form? - When air is cooler than the water (or soil) over which it passes – fog forms. Think bathtub fog on a cold morning. California coastal summer fog at first glance seems a puzzle – it starts to form at about 1000 ft., but not at sea level. Air sweeps eastward from the cool Ocean surface – The sea is colder than the air, thus, no fog at sea level. But when air is forced to rise up the coastal slope it undergoes a process called adiabatic cooling – Think of a large balloon filled with air at sea level –the pressure of the atmosphere pushing inward is in balance with the normal attempt of the air mass to expand outward. The air mass is in equilibrium as long as conditions stay constant.

Some days the fog persisted

Suppose the balloon rises 1000 ft – the pressure of the atmosphere is now less and the internal air pushing outward is able to expand the air inside the balloon – this outward expansion uses up energy removed from the air mass– losing energy results in reduction in temperature. “Adiabatic Cooling” is equal to -5.5F/1000 ft. The ocean airmass, rising up the mountain slope, has now been made cooler than the ground over which it is passing - and fog particles form – hence clouds/fog.

2000 ft - The fog zone - By traveling higher we later broke into bright sunlight again!

My brother in law, Donald, and I drove up the mountain side of Mt. Tamalpais – up into the fog zone and I saw a phenomenon I have only read about – Fir trees at about the 2000 ft level have adapted to the Pacific coast foggy summer conditions by developing a needle shape that provide surface area for the fog to coalesce. When enough fog particles have collected, a drop of water slides off the needle… the effect under the tree is that of a steady rainfall of fat raindrops. The trees "milk" the fog... Coastal redwoods can also do the same.

Fir trees "milking moisture from the fog

This reminds me a story…Years ago when Judy and I were camping in the country parks in Hawaii we had a partly empty air mattress on the back seat of our car – we drove from sealevel to the top of Mt. Haleakala on the island of Maui. We reached the top, and when I looked in the back seat, the air mattress had expanded almost to the busting point – Expansion due to elevation change and change in atmospheric pressure…

In the moist fog zone the growth is some thick it forms a jungle

Sunday Don, his daughter, two friends and I returned to Mt. Tamalpais – but now the sun was brilliant and the forest was filled with green leaves, sunbeams, and bird songs – it was a marvel! Tracy and her friends are young adults, very comfortable in their San Francisco life style – but with an impressive worldview – We share a deep love of nature, of wild green places, of lichens, and ferns, of the myriad forest plants and creatures… it is such a pleasure to see the forest through their eyes.

Community of lichens:(click to open)

They are involved with a group of young urbanites that in addition to their professional lives enjoy the process of creating community within the midst of the city – It is part of a movement found in other urban areas. I have heard it called “localism”. At regular times, the group gathers as a person's garden and working together, they give it a total creative redo – training and empowering the owner/renter to maintain the garden as a place of beauty and perhaps practical food production. Then after working together they enjoy good food and continue an on-going Kendama competition. To learn about Kendama - go here:

Sunday afternoon we collected samples of windfall lichens and mosses to be used in gardens or terrarium construction. I love the form and variety of lichens and so I have a lot in common with them.

Crustose Lichens growing on an exposed rock

Later in the week Judy and I drove past Muir wood:– It is a beautiful stand of coastal redwood trees only a short hop from the urban centers of the Bay Area … What we saw was unbelievable! It was 10AM, a weekday morning, and the parking lot was full – the large overflow parking area was full – the street parking for a mile in each direction was full. This is a statement about the human desire to relate with the natural world. (The area is quite small so I fear that with these many visitors the pathways would be as crowded as a city sidewalk).

A large bolder of serpentine rock - slopes of Mt. Tamalpais (detail view)

It is also a statement about human population and how it has grown. I think of redwood forests as landscapes where the only sounds are raucous scrub jays and the gentle rustle of wind in the top branches. It is a place of bright yellow 8 inch banana slugs and a whole ecosystem of small plants and animals dependent on the shade and moisture that are part of this environment. I wish all of these people could experience the real beauty and peace of the wild forest in a more leisurely setting...

Pacific Sideband Snail (Monadenia fidelis )

Links of the week;

1. Our national crisis is still unresolved - I recommend the daily New York Times editorials for a helpful perspective: Here is a sample:

2. The budget debate, these past weeks, has sucked all the air out of the news cycle. We are so on overload with one issue that a number of critically important news topics have slipped past us. The issue of changes to our environmental controls can affect our environmental and health for years to come:

I think Mr. Murdock is also thanking his lucky stars that the budget debate took the spot light off him...

3.We are so democratic in this country that we feel that all sides of an issue should be given equal hearing - even when knowledge and reason are lacking from one side... Read this: