Food Waste and Our Soil: Why everyone should compost for a healthier future

It’s called “black gold” – no, it’s not oil, it’s compost and it is valuable. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how precious this commodity really is for our earth.  I’ve written about how-to compost in the past. It’s not a very glamorous topic, talking about how people should throw away their trash but it’s a very important one. Compost can help revitalize infertile soils which is major problem not only in the U.S but throughout the world.

Soil Erosion is a Global Issue

The U.S. and most of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, and other farming practices that have left the soil depleted. Topsoil is the most fertile arable land on earth and some experts fear, we could even run out of it to grow food in within the next 60 years[1]! Soil erosion is 2nd to population growth as the environments biggest problem[2]. But soil isn’t sexy.

How Does Compost Help the soil?

The majority of people who compost are gardeners who know all the benefits composting can produce for their gardens, lawns and lives. Compost helps build soil structure which enables soil to retain nutrients, water and air – all key ingredients to growing healthy plants. It also helps protect land against drought and plants from disease. Compost is filled with life – microorganisms, earthworms and insects – a synergistic force of nature. It acts as a PH buffer, neutralizing various soil toxins and metals (lead and cadmium) by bonding with them so plants will not. Now think about places like California that have had a tremendous amount of soil erosion and degradation due to wildfires and mudslides and how they could benefit a build up compost.

It’s Not just for Country Folk – Urban Dwellers benefit too

However, composting is a practice of sustainable living which should be practiced by everyone.  There is little in this world that we have control over, and composting is one of the things that can do that is within our control to make our planet a healthier place.  It doesn’t require government intervention or corporate governance; it simply takes a little effort by individuals.  A new habit of how we throw away our trash needs to be formed.

Today, there are more and more compost services which take the hassle out of what traditionally was something only avid gardeners and farmers practiced. We have friends who live in Portland, Maine who use a compost pick-up service which provides them with beautiful compost. A quick search on the internet was able to provide me with a number of businesses throughout the United States that provide either curbside or drop-off composting. That’s great for citizens to be able to have those options available to them and I believe that more people would compost if they knew more about how it would help our environment.

Urban dwellers who would like to be environmentally conscientious in the past have not been able to compost or have had to struggle with composting. Composting can be messy and smelly; it can bring about rats, and other unwanted and hazardous pests if not done properly. Fortunately, more and more businesses have turned their energy and efforts towards this problem and are making it easy for communities including city-dwellers to compost. But why should they want to compost? They don’t have gardens or lawns they could use the compost on.

How Does Composting Help the Environment?

When food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane gas, the greenhouse gas which traps heat within our atmosphere which is 23x more potent than carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is responsible for 34% of all the methane emissions in the U.S.[3] Landfills are so densely packed that much of the degradation happens during a slow, anaerobic process. Anaerobic processes create a tremendous amount of methane gas. One way to ease the amount of food waste that ends up in the landfills is for the food waste to be converted into compost.  We need to be more consciences about how we throw away food.  Americans throw away food more than any other single material, more than paper, even more than plastic![4]

Set up a system

We moved to New Hampshire a few years ago and live in a very rural area that does not have curb-side or community drop-off yet in our area, although it does exist in the state. Our town however, has very strict recycling rules and our garbage has to be well sorted before going to the dump.  Our kitchen has seven (7) 13-gallon trash containers which take up three of my under cabinets. We primarily sort out: burnables, cardboard, metal, aluminum foil, plastic, glass, magazines. You may think seven sounds like a lot but we actually could use a few more for a few other categories like batteries and light bulbs. There are at least two trash containers at my desk, as well as two in every bedroom and bathroom. So, you can imagine with all the different trash we deal with being able to sort out our food waste from the other “burnables” would be desirable. The dump isn’t far away but sometimes the weather can make things difficult to get down the mountain on the days the dump is open – which is only Friday-Sunday; Mondays included during the summer months. However, composting up here on the mountain the traditional way would require an electric fence to keep bears, coyotes and the rest of the surrounding wildlife away.  It was hard enough running out to the side yard in Connecticut sometimes, so the thought of having to breach an electric fence made the idea impossible. That all changed when I found the FoodCycler™ FC-30, a in-home composting unit which has been a complete game-changer in our household. Check out our Product Review on this wonderful little unit.

As individuals, we can make a difference in the health of our planet by making smart choices of how we discard our household food waste in the future. We must learn to strike a balance between our lifestyles and our impact on nature.

Facts to consider

The average US citizen creates 4 lbs of trash per day [EPA]

The average US citizen throws away about 1200 lbs of organic garbage annually that could be repurposed as compost. Americans as a whole throw away 43,000 tons of food every day. [EPA]

The EPA estimates that 75% of American waste is recyclable yet only 30% is actually recycled. [EPA]

Americans generate 21.5 million tons of food waste annually – composting it would reduce greenhouse emissions equivalent to removing 2 million cars from the road [Carnegie Mellon CEE Green Team . -April 15, 2015]

Footnotes:

[1]What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” Time, 14 Dec 12

[2] D. Pimentel, “Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat,” Environ. Devel. Sustain. 8, 119 (2006)

[3] Waste Land: Does the Large Amount of Food Discarded in the U.S. Take a Toll on the Environment? Scientific America March 10, 2010

[4] Upper Valley Business Finding ‘Pay Dirt’ in Food Scraps nhpr.org February 13, 2018

Further Recommended Reading:

CompostNow.org

SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction – fao.org

11 Facts About Recycling – dosomething.org

Soil Erosion and Degradation – World Wildlife Federation

Product Review: FoodCycler™ FC-30

[Note: We do not make any money from our Product Reviews. We purchase the products we review, unless otherwise noted.]

I’m always on the lookout to make a difficult job easier and late last year I discovered a wonderful home composting system called the FoodCycler™ which can be done inside, doesn’t smell and isn’t messy!  Since moving up here 2-1/2 years ago we did a complete garden overhaul but haven’t been able to compost. Bears and coyotes make that difficult for us without an electric fence up here where we live in rural New Hampshire. But that has all changed thanks to us finding out about the FoodCycler™ FC-30. Food Cycle Science, the company which distributes the machines, is a Canadian company that focuses on bringing green technology to homes and businesses across North America to combat the increasing problem of methane emissions caused by the influx of food waste in landfills.

This in-home composting system is so incredibly easy to use– I just feel the need to tell everyone about it!  A quick look at some our Instagram posts will show you how much we love this composter. First off, let me say that for the most part it is just the two of us here, but we do get the occasional visit from our kids or friends who contribute to our trash on occasion.

How Does it Work?

FoodCycler™ FC-30

The FoodCycler™ FC-30 is a multiphase organic food waste recycling machine that dehydrates and converts food waste into compost. It’s very stylish and fits in nicely with other kitchen items like your coffee maker. I don’t have a lot of counter space up here, so our composter is sitting on the floor in a space that’s out of the way and easy to access.  The interior of the unit holds a removable cast iron bucket which holds a 2-3lbs of food scraps. I fill it up right away, other days it takes us a few days to fill it up.  During the process which takes somewhere between 3-6 hours, the food waste is agitated and heated up to 179.6ºF (82ºC); thus helping to reduce the food waste in volume.  The system is able to sustain the proper heat levels needed to kill harmful bacteria, so you can also throw in food scraps you wouldn’t normally throw in your old compost pile such as meats, fish and chicken bones – even cheese!  Last night was the first time we used it with chicken scraps from a whole chicken and some leftover veggies. We had been to the dump earlier but picked up the chicken at the grocery store right afterwards. The thought of the leftover carcass and scraps sitting in the garage over the next week was very unappealing, so I finally decided to give it a try and compost the chicken and so glad I did! We were extremely pleased with the resulting compost and I feel a whole new world of composting has opened up to us. Another great thing about this system is since it is so well made, the cast-iron bucket cleans up quickly. Most of the time all I have had to do is rinse and wipe with a paper towel, but it easily slips into the dishwasher as well.

Our compost made with
the FoodCycler™FC-30

We have been using the FoodCycler™ for the last 6 weeks and are really quite happy with quality of the compost it produces.  I keep a small trug next to the unit and dump the finished compost into it. It doesn’t smell at all and right now my garden is under 3 feet of snow, so it’s just as easy to leave it inside next to the unit until it fills up.  When it’s on it’s quiet and doesn’t use any more energy than a small microwave oven. The FoodCycler™ reduces methane gas emission since the aerobic digestion process doesn’t create any methane and any CO2 emissions created in the process are captured by the carbon filters built into the unit. All in all, we are cutting down on our carbon footprint in so many ways, making less trips to the dump and not contributing as much food waste into landfills.

5 Green Thumbs Up Rating
5 Green Thumps Up

It’s for all these reasons we give the FoodCycler™ a 5 green thumbs up. In fact, I liked the machine so much I reached out to the company to see if there was a way we could work together. Homegrown Harvest is a small company and we work with suppliers who directly ship to our customers since we don’t take on inventory. We don’t have the space or means to deal with that, so Food Cycle Science was kind enough to extended to us a $30 off coupon code: HomegrownHarvest2019 that we can share on social media.

[Please note – we don’t make any money off of the sale the FoodCyclers™; we are just happy to be able to offer our followers a discount on a product that we think is a well-made and will make a difference in helping us all live a more sustainable lifestyle.]

Healthy Soil and It’s Importance in the Garden


What Makes Food Nutritious?

Did you ever stop and wonder what exactly makes our food nutritious?  Not delicious, but nutrient-rich.  Some people may believe that what makes food nutritious comes from the seed when in fact it comes from the soil.

There are 17 elements that all plants need in order to go through to have a successful life cycle. Hydrogen (H), carbon (C) and oxygen (O), plants get through the air and water; leaving 14 elements that are critical for plants to obtain through soil1. However, soil alone may not be enough and there is usually a need for added fertilizers, manures and other amendments to make sure plants receive the right nutritional elements.


Since soil is a key element when growing plants and particularly vegetables, building a raised garden bed can help gardeners start off right by beginning with a pristine soil mixture. Starting a raised garden bed allows gardeners the ability to establish a foundation with a well-balanced, nutrient-rich, weed-seed free growing medium without having to go through the backbreaking work involved with starting and maintained an in-ground garden.  In-ground gardening requires plenty of soil testing, tilling and hoeing – all very laborious and time-consuming work.  Versus starting a raised bed garden where you are able to control the growing environment from the very beginning by creating a blend of composts, fertilizers, manures and amendments.

For many years, when Mark and I first began Homegrown Harvest, we started many raised

garden beds for our clients with a mixture of composts, peat moss and vermiculite. The composts are the key ingredient, delivering the nutrients to your plants. Some composts can be nitrogen rich having come solely from dried grass clippings and leaves from the yard. Compost ideally should be a well-balanced.  Some local towns and municipalities offer their residents free compost, or there are services in certain areas where they will come pick up your compostables and in exchange will give you bags of compost for your garden or to donate to others.  Compost pick up services make it so easy for people to compost by taking all the messy and time-consuming work out of the equation. All the client needs to do is sort their garbage properly.  A quick Google search should help you locate one in your area. Consider yourself lucky if you do live in an area that has pick up compost service; thankfully there is more and more demand out with more people understanding we need to live more sustainable lifestyles.  What I love about compost pick up services is that it makes it possible for many people who may not have the space to compost to be able to cut down their carbon footprint and live more sustainable lifestyles.

Ingredients needed to Compost

If you don’t have a source for local compost there are plenty of options at either the big retail stores like Home Depot or Lowe, as well as your local garden center. One of our favorites products to use along with bagged composts or our homemade compost is Master’s Choice Bumper Crop:

“Bumper Crop Organic Soil Amendment is a soil building blend of manure and high organic nutrient content of shellfish compost, dark, rich earthworm castings (adds minerals and biology), kelp, peat, aged bark, and lobster – inoculated with endo and ecto michorrizal fungi to improve root function. The lobster body provides a lot of Nitrogen, and the shells breakdown to release a lot of Calcium, the #1 ingredients that plants need. Bumper Crop Organic Soil Amendment is an all-purpose, pre-fertilized planting and garden soil amendment. This product excels as a nutrient rich top dressing and mulch.”

Each time a plant grows, blossoms and fruits, the nutrients from the compost is delivered to the plant and the subsequent fruit.  Plenty of times we will do succession planting where we will plant something else into a space that had been used previously. For instance, once early crops of lettuces, broccoli and the like have been harvested an empty space will be left.  Usually we will plant in that same space something else to follow it up but before we do so we always add back in some fresh compost. Remember the used area has been depleted of its nutrients from the harvest plants, so it must be replaced in order to deliver the needed elements for the next plants to complete their life cycle.

Step by step guide to Gardening

Understanding soil is important not only for being able to grow your own fresh, nutrient rich fruits and vegetables but also vital to understanding more about the fruits and vegetables we buy in our grocery stores from mass-produced farms. I have written about soil before many years ago on this blog in a post called The Importance of soil – our lives depend on it! where I go into more in depth detail about soil. Our country has been in a crisis of ongoing soil degradation for decades.  Perhaps the words “dust bowl” conjures up images from a John Steinbeck novel; however, in present day America, our farmlands have taken a beating from mono-cropping and the addition of synthetic fertilizers in efforts to replace the depleted nutrients.  Unfortunately, these synthetic additives have made more of a problem for farmers. Fortunately, there are things that farmers can and have started to do to help rebuild our soil. Check out the PSA from Astronomer Laura Danly

Source:

Succession Planting – a great way to extend your season

It is that time in the season when temperatures begin to rise, produce starts ripening and parts of our garden have emptying spaces. The previous soil tenants of lettuce, kale and cabbage have been harvested; and soon we will be pulling the garlic we planted last fall and other onions that overwintered as well. We are just finishing collecting all that can be harvested from the spring peas. At the start of the season, I planted a variety of Sugar Ann, Oregon Sugar Pod II and Mammoth Melting Snow Peas. We’ve enjoyed snacking on these yummy treats for a couple months now and I just gave a quart sized bag filled to the brim to the kids who will enjoy snacking on them during their camping trip this week.

As I look out upon the garden from my desk, the garden looks quiet right now. The rain a few minutes ago made all the birds head for cover. We’ve had more than a few birds feed on the kale and cabbage that I let go to seed. There are also a few heads of lettuce that I let go to seed as well. I decided to let some stuff go to seed for two reasons: curiosity and laziness. I’ll address the latter reason first. At the time the kale and cabbage started to go to seed we were very busy installing and planting our clients’ gardens. I was too tired and basically lazy to pull it out when it started to bolt. Curiosity got the better of me once I had watched a video about collecting seed from kale plants and thought it I should try it. Collecting seeds from produce that you grew can be incredibly satisfying however depending upon the variety will determine how easy or difficult it can be. Collecting seeds from tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant tends to be easier than collecting from green leafy vegetables. It is a little bit more involved and a topic for another blog.

julyIt’s hard to believe that it could be July 15th already; but there is still plenty of time to be able to seed quick growing crops in most zones. I don’t think many people realize that there is even plenty of time to sow seeds for certain vegetables that will give you a late-summer or an early autumn harvest. Here in Zone 6 by mid-July you can transplant your June started seedlings or starts bought from a local nursery for brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. However, if you were going to direct seed right into the garden bed there’s plenty more options available. Certain varieties work better than others when seeding this time of year. Varieties of spinach like Avon, Tyee and Indian Summer are all quick growers that are vigorous, high-yielding and have superb flavor all four seasons of the year. When looking for varieties, I look for quick growers that take under 50 days. As of today with 15 weeks left until November 1, that’s 105 days – it’s important to remember when you are seeding directly into your garden bed to add two weeks to the time to allow for germination and slower growth in fall.

After seeding it may be a good idea use a row cover to protect the freshly seeded area from the hot summer sun and wind.

Seeed carrots
Newly seeded carrots that germinated

Here in Zone 6, I still have time in from now until the end of the month to sow bush beans, carrots, radishes, beets, kohlrabi, turnips, kale, peas as well nasturtiums to add more color to the garden since they only take a quick 10 days to germinate.

 One of the most important and sometime overlooked thing to remember when sowing seeds during the mid-summer is always add compost to the area that you’re about to sow your seeds. By adding compost you are replenishing the nutrients that were depleted from the crop that you previously harvested. Food gets their nutrients from the soil and it’s very important to understand that once the crop is been harvested that compost needs to be introduced back to the soil to replenish the depleted nutrients.

The more food we grow, the more flavors we are exposed to, and the more vitamins and minerals are actually in our food.  Win-win-win!

“Pulling weeds and pickin’ stones
Man is made from dreams and bones.
Feel the need to grow my own
‘Cause the time is close at hand.
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature’s chain.
To my body and my brain
To the music from the land.”

– The Garden Song written by David Mallett

girl_planted_seeds

The Importance of soil – Our lives depend on it!

It’s the first time in a long while since I have had the opportunity to sit at my computer to do something other than check my email, pay bills and write up invoices.  It doesn’t seem like it was too long ago I felt tethered to my computer as I was preparing presentation after presentation for our Spring Gardening Series at the New Canaan Library.   I’m not complaining at all – I have been blessed with nine weeks of solid gardening after a winter of 60+ inches of snow.  Our time following the thaw started off in April amending and seeding our raised beds and those of our clients.  Amending the soil on an annual basis is what we consider one of the most important steps in the process.

“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
Charles E. Kellogg, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938

Before becoming a full-time professional gardener and an accredited organic land care professional three years ago – I used to research food, water, and agribusiness companies for my brother’s investment company.  Over the course of a decade or more of reading about companies directly involved with our food production, my understanding of the importance soil plays in growing healthy fruits and vegetables has grown exponentially.

Today we find ourselves in a situation where the US and much of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost due to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers and other farming practices that leave the soil depleted.  Our planet is losing its usable topsoil at a considerable rate [75 to 100 GT per year].  What does that mean – basically it means   it’s estimated that there will only be about 48 years of topsoil left, if we keep up the pace.

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

Fact: Food grown in nutrient deficient soil lacks the nutrients necessary to keep people healthy and declines in the nutritional values in food have been attributed to mineral depletion of the soil, loss of soil microorganisms along with changes in plant varieties.

Our food system is rapidly losing the ability to produce food with nutrient levels adequate to maintain the health of families because over the extreme levels of soil degradation we experience in the US.

“The alarming fact is that food – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough needed nutrients, are starving no matter how much we eat from them.” US Senate Document 264 (1936)

This is not a new problem, as the quote from the US Senate Document 264 stated back in 1936! Soil degradation has been talked about and debated for decades and is a problem that is not solely in the United States but is a global issue.

FAO-Infographic-IYS2015-fs2-enDeforestation, overgrazing and over cultivation have resulted in the degradation of soils in every region of the world.  The 68th UN General Assembly considered it worthy enough to turn their attentions to soil importance by declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils.

The fact of the matter is that soils have been transformed by human activity. Whether it’s been through physical degradation by removing natural vegetation, leaving surfaces exposed to the elements or biological degradation where soil has been exhausted of nutrients.

With erosion comes desertification in some areas – I’m sure many who live in the west probably have noticed the increasing number of dust storms. National Geographic recently covered a story, American West Increasingly Dusty comparing dust emissions to be reminiscent of the Dust Bowl Days.  In other areas, we see increased flooding or mudflows.  In the end, all culminating in a loss of soil and biological diversity which directly threatens our overall food security.

Today the nutritional value of harvested food is a major issue.  Over the course of a half a century of the over use of petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers – the commercial farming industry has brought about the destruction of the natural balance of carbon reserves in our soil.

Why is carbon so important in our soil?
The role of carbon is two-fold holding valuable nutrients as well as moisture for plants.  The destruction of carbon has caused our soils to lose the ability to grow healthy food since plants get their nutrients, important minerals from the soil.

Recent studies including one by the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry showed that there have been substantial declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C over the last century. The study goes as far as to point the finger at the multitude of agricultural practices used to improve traits like size, growth rate and pest resistance.

“Be it deep or shallow, red or black, sand or clay, the soil is the link between the rock core of the earth and the living things on its surface.  It is the foothold for the plants we grow.  Therein lies the main reason for our interest in soils.”
Roy W. Simonson, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1957

Many other studies conclude similar and startling findings considering that they say an adult woman eating two peaches in 1951 would have to eat 53 in 2002 to get the same nutritional value!  If that doesn’t make the point clear, I don’t know what will.

It’s no wonder that our food has scarcely any nutritional content – in today’s global food system, consumers are guaranteed to find a ripe tomato any day of the year, in most any store across our country.  The average produce travels 1500-2500 miles to reach the grocery store; being harvested well before the fruit is properly ripened.[Pirog et al 2001]  Most fruits and vegetables contain 70% – 90% water and once it is separated from its source of nutrients – the tree, the vine or the plant – they undergo higher rates of respiration, moisture loss, quality and nutrient degradation and potential microbial spoilage.

Chemical preservatives are used to make produce look better to consumers, despite the loss of nutritional value.  While full color may be achieved after harvest, nutritional quality can not.  Tomatoes harvested green have 31% less vitamin C than those allowed to ripen on the vine. (Lee and Kader, 2000)  Plus commercial produce producers selects seed varieties for transportability, shelf life, not nutrient content or flavor.

So what can you do about this global problem?
The answer is as simple as looking in your own backyard or perhaps you get better sun in the front yard.  Grow Your Own Food. It doesn’t take a lot of space and the time you put into it is so rewarding and healthy for your body, mind and soul.

Food gets their nutrients from healthy soil and healthy soil leads to higher nutrients in crops.  A growing body of research supports Sir Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale, the founders of the organic movement who first hypothesized that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food higher in antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals.

SoilQuality

Healthy soil is biologically alive and balanced in minerals and carbon content.  Soil organisms play an essential role in the breakdown of organic matter and other complex molecules.  These activities are also linked to processes that lead to the aggregation of soil particles into a friable soil structure that is beneficial for the growth of plants.  The inter-connected activities of soil organisms improve soil stability and underpin nutrient cycling on a global scale.

It’s a fact that healthy soils are responsible for the production of food borne antibiotics, vitamins, phyto-chemicals and amino acids – all of which are crucial the the health of humans.  The right soil will yield the most nutritious and flavorful food possible.  Old techniques which many still prescribe to today: things like roto-tilling and hoeing on soil can be very disruptive to soil organisms.  That’s just one of the reasons we like to use raised beds since they help avoid soil compaction which also effects soils organisms and the soil can be worked more easily without disrupting soil organisms too much.

Photo Credit: Daphne Sampson
Photo Credit: Daphne Sampson

Decomposition of organic matter is the organic content of soil, as decomposing organic material increase carbon content into the soil . This is also one of the many reasons people should compost.  I’d get more into composting but I can go on and on and I will leave that for a soon-to-be-coming blog post.

But composting and compost play a vital role in having healthy nutrient-rich soil year after year.  The soil we use when we install new raised garden beds is a combination of ingredients we mix together. The compost is the food, the nutrient sourse that will feed the growth of the plants coupled with peat which holds water and help keep the soil loose.  We also include some vermiculite, a rock which is mined and heated into little pieces that have nooks and crannies that hold water and nutrients in the soil.  It also helps keep the soil friable and less dense.  Vermiculite also adds a touch of potassium and magnesium but not enough to disrupt pH levels.  When we start with this mixture we have created a weed free environment that is organically balanced for growing food.  The only thing on an annual basis which is replaced each spring is the compost, since it holds the nutrients.  This is why Mark and I went around to all our clients’ gardens this spring and replenished the beds with fresh new compost.

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By growing even a small amount of vegetables you can boost your vitamin and mineral intake significantly. There is no travel time involved and you have controlled the environment in which it has grown. You save water as well, since home gardening is much more efficient than commercial farming systems.

When veggies are grown in your own garden soil enrich with compost, you pick them when you need your veggies minutes before a meal. They are ripe and ready when they are highest in nutritional content. Vine ripened red peppers have 30% more vitamin C than green peppers. (Howard et al. 1994) and vine ripened tomatoes have more vitamin C as well as more antioxidants and lycopene than those harvested prematurely, which is what happens daily in commercial agriculture. (Arias et al 2000).

Soil is a non-renewable resource; its preservation is essential for food security and our sustainable future.

“We are part of the earth and it is part of us …
What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”

Chief Seattle, 1852

We love helping others learn the joys of edible gardening and discovering for themselves the nutritional benefits from even growing just a little of their fresh produce. If they need our guidance – we are always there to help. We have often said we consider ourselves to be gardening coaches to our clients. We love helping people discover their green thumb.

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Bein’ Green – Living Green

Kermit used to struggle with “Bein’ Green” and many Americans, as well as others around the world today struggle with ‘living green’.  Our society has been accustomed to throwing things away – after all it sometimes feels like takes more effort to recycle.

Three years ago I bought a Toyota Highlander Hybrid in an effort to try to be more ‘green’ and not use so much gas etc… Gas prices were rising and I felt I had to do something. What I didn’t know was that I have to make sure the car is started at least every 3-4 days, otherwise the battery will die. WHAT????!!! Unfortunately I learned this the hard way, after buying the car and upon returning home from a 7 day vacation to discover that my car which was only 10 days old was dead.  It was later explained to me by the guys in the parts department that if I leave on vacation I need to hook the car up to a trickle charger. WHAT???!!!! Back up the truck – I have to do what?? My car is a 2009 and back then – three long years ago which in technology terms might as well be decades – they didn’t just plug right in like a golf cart does and some cars now like the Chevy Volt. I have to lift the hood and attached jumper cables directly to the battery and then plug into an outlet.  I hate having to deal with my car, especially the battery.  I accidentally touched the two cables together once and received quite a jolt. Thus my very warranted fear.

Anyway what does this have to do with gardening? Nothing accept to demonstrate that in order to be green – I had to do things differently and start thinking differently. Some consider this extra work and are so accustomed to instant gratification that the change needed isn’t worth their added time.  Gardening teaches patience, there is no rushing Mother Nature – after all, my generation was taught not to fool with Mother Nature.

I am a child of the ’70’s and I remember when the country renewed it’s efforts during the tough economic times of oil crisis to “reduce, reuse & recycle”. That’s initially when my mother introduced me to vegetable gardening.  Recycling wasn’t a new concept however in our country’s short history, as there were many efforts to reuse and recycle things throughout time particularly during war time.  Mankind for centuries has been collecting and melting down scrap metals for re-purposing. Yet in 2013 we still seem to struggle with “reducing, reusing & recycling” in our daily lives.  Sure more cities and municipalities have made great efforts providing recycling bins in subways and on city streets. But the laws regarding recycling vary from state to state and make things complicated for households.

I have and continue to try to recycle over the years but it can be very challenging to keep up with at times. I have a wonderful area for our household trash – it’s in a corner cabinet – which helps out at least in setting up an organizational system. Growing up my mother had a similar cabinet but her cabinet has a two-tiered lazy-Susan where she would store canned goods. However, when I was picking out my kitchen accessories I opted for a three trash bin system which hides nicely in the corner cabinet.  I see from the my cabinet’s manufacturer website their newer system has four- bins.

It’s neat and tidy and also keeps the dogs out the trash for the most part and worked wonderfully as long as I was the only one throwing out the garbage.  But as the children grew older and started to throw things away for themselves, although they knew the system didn’t always adhere by it and their friends, well, let’s just say no one seems to bother to look before they throw something away.  This would lead to everything being tossed with the non-recyclable trash that and impossible to sort out at times.  Then I even purchased a fourth bin which sits out in the kitchen which was marked 5¢ Refund Only on the lid hoping that everyone would get a clue if at least the cans were no where near the other trash.  This has been more effective recently with about a 10% error ratio when my son’s friends are over.

Recently we have been composting and I found that again – in order to be successful – I needed to figure out a system.  We had already set up our composter outside which I discuss in my November 10, 2012 post Homegrown Harvest: Composting: The Making of Black Gold: Mix, Mash, Moisture, Move: The Four M’s of Composting but I found initially I had to think first before I threw things away, also how or where was I going to collect the scraps for the composter while in the kitchen.  What was I going to do – run clear across the house and out the side door to our composter every time I had a contribution? I don’t think so. I knew I needed a containment system for the kitchen and took to reading a number of people’s recommendations on blogs and websites etc…I  was at the pet store when I stumbled upon the perfect bin. It’s not too big, but not too little measuring 15″ tall and holds 16 quarts and has a secure lid. This is important in my house with four dogs roaming around plus it helps contain the smell and start the composting process.

After a few weeks I added a small cup by the coffee maker so we can easily dump out coffee grounds and tea leaves and simply dump it into the mini composter bin when it’s full. That reduces the number of times we have to open the lid because once you have a few wonderful compost-able scraps like orange peels, egg shells, some dryer lint, edamame shells and more you have quite the odoriferous brew going in there.  I like the size of this bin since it’s not too big, it doesn’t get to heavy and makes shaking the contents around easy and can be walked to the compost just as easily without breaking your back.  The kids are adapting to the idea of composting and although my daughter doesn’t want to smell what’s in there she will leave her clementine peels in a bowl on the counter near-by for me to throw it out. Baby-steps – it beats her simply throwing them out and having me fish them out of the trash.

Everyday, I work on new ways to continue to make recycling an easier part of our lives. As long as it takes to break a habit – it takes just as long to form a new one, at least the good ones.  I look forward to the seeing our compost supply build and will be equally excited to use the beautiful Black Gold in our garden this summer!

If you have had any experiences with recycling or composting, please leave a comment. I love to collect new and different ideas on how to “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle”.

 

Composting: The Making of Black Gold

Mix, Mash, Moisture, Move: The Four M’s of Composting

Compost is an important ingredient in every garden. They call it Black Gold because what it can do for your plants is priceless.  People think that composting has to be difficult – but it doesn’t. People have a way of over-complicating things.  First off to make things clear let’s define the word compost. According to Merriam-Webster, the noun compost is a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land. But it’s also a transitive verb meaning to convert (as plant debris) to compost. So composting makes compost and compost is again? Oh yeah, decayed organic matter -well that explains that!
Let’s see what else we can find from the Concise Encyclopedia on compost: 

“Mass of rotted organic matter made from decomposed plant material. It is used in agriculture and gardening generally to improve soil structure rather than as a fertilizer, because it is low in plant nutrients. When properly prepared, it is free of obnoxious odors.”

Well that is concise mouthful so let’s break it down.  

The mass of rotted organic matter

Green matter for composting

In order to make your compost balanced you want to remember not to use just one or two items but many different items so you can have a balanced compost.   The “rotted organic matter” you want to collect are easy to remember if you break it down into two groups: brown matter and green matter.  Brown matter consist of things are hard and dry and provide carbon into the mix. Green matter consists of things are moist and wet and provide nitrogen.  
Brown Materials include: shredded newspaper, cardboard (non-waxed), dried leaves, brown bags, small amounts of sawdust, eggshells, pine needles, tea bags, corn cobs, straw and wood prunings. No single brown item should make up more than 10% of your entire mixture.  You can also use fresh manures from rabbits, horses, goats and chicken unless you want to have a vegan compost.   Green items include: vegetables, fruit, seaweed, kelp, plant cuttings, garden weeds and trimmings, and apple cores, etc.
No single green item should make up more than 20% of your entire mixture.  If you plan on using grass clipping, you have to dry them out first, otherwise you will have a stinky, icky mess on your hands.
No-no items include meat scraps, bakery products, seeds and fruit pits, dairy products, grease, whole eggs, cheese and oily things like peanut butter, mayonnaise and lettuce leaves with salad dressing on them nor can you use table scraps from dinner.  No pet food or pet litter and keep the large branches out as well, unless you can chop it up.
Some other things which you may not realize you can use include things like hair and pet fur, feathers, dryer lint, wood ashes, paper towel, the tubes from toilet paper and paper towels.
Ultimately while collecting these materials and composting them you want to strive for a 3:1 ratio of Brown:Green aka Carbon:Nitrogen ratio.

 
Brown Matter like wood chips and bark

Properly Prepared

An important thing in composting is mashing your ingredients into small bits. The smaller the better as it will help speed up the decomposition process.  Things like dried leaves can be run over with a lawn mower to make them smaller.  Moisture is very important as well. You are striving for a damp mixture not too wet or too dry either. Finally you must keep turning your pile, always towards the center of the pile where its the hottest and moistest part of the mixture. That’s where all the good stuff happens in the decomposition process.

What else?

Composting can take some time , but the more you mix and mash, the quicker the process can be. Also having a certain amount of mass will help to expedite the process as well.  When you add new things to the mix be sure to mix it in well.  Think of it was making a meatloaf or a cake.  You need to be sure all the ingredients get mixed well together each time you add something new.

Composting pit

Where and how you choose to compost is a personal choice.  There are a lot of different methods, like barrels which can be rolled or containers with handles which can be turned. But a simple 3 x 3 or 4 x 4 area is all you need – anything bigger would be ineffective and actually hinder the process.  You can build your own compost pit easily with some wood or brick. You can even use the black garbage bag method, but that can be a rather stinky process and tends to use only one ingredient.  If you do this just be sure to add other composted blends to your compost mixture before you add it to the garden so it is well balanced.

Is there anything else?

One of the most challenging parts about composting can be collecting the materials.  Separating things out doesn’t always come naturally to folks.   Especially if you have teenagers or children running about who find using a garbage can challenging. That may be just my kids.  Anyway, I find that having a can especially designated for the compost heap helpful.  Clearly mark it, maybe select a different color bin altogether.  If you have any ideas in this area, I would love to hear about them. If you’re on Twitter send me a message @HomeharvestCT or simply leave a comment on this blog.  

Composting is a fabulous way of helping to reduce our waste and is such a valuable ingredient for our gardens.  Happy composting everyone!