How to start composting

Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.

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Our original compost pile.

If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.

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Our current compost set-up, in a photo obviously from 2019’s wet spring. (We haven’t seen rain clouds like that even once this year.)

Nature does not create waste; dead and decaying things are constantly regenerated into the ecosystem. Think of a damp, cool forest floor: all of those leaves and branches and fungi and invertebrates and thousands of other creatures working together to create a hospitable growing environment. Composting is at heart a very simple procedure: trillions of microorganisms breaking down organic matter into a more usable format that can be endlessly recycled into your garden. The two most important components of good compost are oxygen and moisture, which is why your compost pile will need a bit of management: you’ll need to turn it, and possibly water it, on a reasonably regular basis.

The first thing to know about composting is that there is a solution for every single household, from tiny bins to industrial barrels. The size of your individual operation depends on your household, your yard space and how you plan to use your compost. There are certain things we can do here on our acreage that might not be practical for your situation; we generate a lot of organic matter (leaves, plant trimmings, chicken waste, etc.) and so have a fairly large compost pile. Please customize as necessary.

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This year’s volunteer squash in the compost pile.

Choose your location for your compost pile, making sure that it’s easily accessible to both turn the compost and to eventually spread it on your garden. If you have the space, repurposed shipping pallets are a terrifically inexpensive way to build a two- or three-part compost system; we put current compostables on one side while the other side is breaking down, then switch as needed. We also keep a small plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid in the kitchen and empty it into our compost pile daily. Garden centers sell large and small composting solutions; many homes use large plastic compost tumblers, which keep everything contained. These are certainly neat in appearance, but any compost stored off the ground will never attract worms and other beneficial bugs, and material in these tumblers doesn’t decompose quickly in the mostly-anaerobic environment. These also tend to be rather costly; gardening isn’t a competition to see who can spend the most money.

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Eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, paper tea bags and coffee grounds should go in your compost.

What you put in your compost pile matters, because you’ll eventually be eating it if you use your compost on edible plants. Any fruit or vegetable scraps, peels or cores can go in, as well as paper tea bags, coffee filters, eggshells, wood ash, napkins and paper towels. Avoid the microplastic tea bags (avoid these anyway; steeping these in boiling water allows your body to absorb the tiny endocrine-disrupting particles), staples, stickers and plastics of any sort. Never put dog, cat, human or any carnivore waste in your compost. Most backyard composting guides recommend not composting meat and dairy, mainly because it can attract unwanted predators; we can tell you from experience that an entire hen – feathers, bones and all – will disappear within a week in a well-managed home compost pile. (Fun fact: a 1,500 pound dairy cow can be entirely decomposed in an industrial compost operation in three weeks. Probably don’t try this at home.)

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Plastic, staples, stickers and microplastic tea bags should not go in your compost.

You want to aim for a balanced mix, usually about a one-to-four ratio, of “green” to “brown” in your compost pile. Green refers to anything fresh, including kitchen scraps, manure and grass clippings. Brown means anything with lower moisture content, including straw, dry leaves, sawdust, newspaper, corn stalks and so on. Greens are rich in nitrogen and do most of the actual decomposition work; browns are rich in carbon and provide food for the microorganisms. Keep in mind that everything you compost – including standard lawn chemicals – ends up in your plants, so think twice about how you treat your weeds unless you enjoy gargling with Round-Up. (It really does cause cancer, even though it doesn’t have to carry a warning label.)

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Once your compost pile gets going it should have hundreds of happy worms.

The compost pile should be turned over regularly, to aerate the pile and allow the matter on top to be incorporated; it should always be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Depending on where you live you may need to water your compost; in our dry climate we have to water frequently in order to keep the decomposition moving. If your compost pile is kept properly damp, turned and aerated, it should never smell and it should never attract swarms of flies, but it should be full of worms. If the compost stinks, it’s typically an indication of poor aeration and/or overly high nitrogen; turn the pile more frequently and add more brown materials.

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This compost is ready to use.

You’ll know your compost is ready when it looks mostly uniform and the individual scraps and bits can no longer be identified; if it looks like crumbled chocolate cake and smells rich, damp and earthy, you’re in great shape. The amount of time it takes to produce finished compost varies widely according to your climate, the size of the pile, the moisture level and the amount of material added, but we try to build ours on annual cycles. Once you’ve achieved this stage, stop feeding this compost pile; you can move the finished compost to a receptacle if necessary so you can start over. Your compost can be used to top-dress your plants, and you can also combine compost and water to make a nutrient-rich compost tea for your garden.

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Why make compost? So you can have soil that doesn’t break pickaxes and pitchforks.

Setting up our compost bins was one of our very first tasks here on Quiet Farm, because good compost takes time and we knew we’d use as much as we could make. Plus, we have abysmal soil here and adding in compost regularly helps aerate and lighten our heavy, rocky clay. Even now we burn through our compost far faster than we produce it; unfortunately, the only source for purchased compost in our area comes from the dairy and chicken feedlots, and that’s not a waste stream we want to be part of. So we use what we have where it will offer the greatest impact.

If you’re not able to start composting where you live, do check with your local municipality. They may have an existing composting program you can participate in, or you might be able to start one. Many cities and towns also have large-scale industrial composting facilities, and often the compost produced is given to residents for free or at a nominal charge. We’re at a point where we all have to make a concerted effort to improve what we can in our gloomy, fractured world, and we can literally start at the ground up, by producing less waste and regenerating our depleted soil. Go forth and compost, friends. It’s easier than you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farm update: June 22

‘Tis the season of both growth and destruction. We spend most of our time weeding and watering and looking for new growth on our crops and in our pasture; in response, all of our crafty farm pests have come out with hunger in their tummies and destruction on their minds. Time spent not watering or weeding is instead spent defending our territory. It’s a hard-fought war of attrition out here, and both sides are digging their heels in.

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A raspberry cane with reassuring new growth.

We’re so pleased to see new growth on most of our raspberry canes. You might remember that we planted forty canes last year and every single one failed; this year we regrouped with drip irrigation and we believe that made all the difference. Bramble fruits like raspberries and blackberries typically do well in our climate; we’d love to grow our own fruit as well as our own vegetables. We’re always, always learning out here, and we’re trying hard not to make the same mistakes twice. We like to make lots of different mistakes instead.

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A recent harvest of fava beans and sugar snap peas.

We have been pleasantly surprised by both our fava bean and snap pea yields this season. Our original fava bean seeds were a gift a decade or so ago from beloved gardener friends back on the Front Range (thanks, Nancy and Bob!) and I’ve grown them out almost every single year and saved a few each time for future plantings. We planted favas in one of our new raised beds as a way to fix nitrogen and improve the soil, and the beans did incredibly well.

Peas are often tricky in Colorado, because they like cool, damp weather (there’s a reason they’re an English culinary staple) and our breakneck seasonal shifts means it gets too hot too quickly, before they really mature. But this year the sugar snaps have been spectacular, and they’re not even overly bitter in our extreme heat. I never expect peas to make it into the kitchen – I plant them as a garden snack – but this year there have been enough for salads and stir-fries, and they just keep producing. No matter how much I think I know, growing food never fails to surprise and delight me.

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A badly damaged broccoli plant.

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These greens have been chewed nearly to the ground.

One of the toughest things about growing organically is that you often don’t know your enemy, so it can be hard to know how to respond – and you can’t just douse everything in a potent chemical cocktail and hope it works. We’re seeing a disheartening amount of damage in our raised beds, particularly on the tender leafy greens. Baby squirrels have been spotted in here – they can make it through the fencing, whereas the adults can’t – but grasshoppers are a big problem for us, too. We’ve taken to spreading the day’s coffee grounds on the beds (apparently squirrels dislike the smell) and I’ve also made some catmint and lemon balm tinctures and poured those over, too. We’re doing our best to grow strong, healthy plants that can fight off attacks, but there is some territory we may just have to cede. Thankfully we’re not taking these crops to market, or we’d be in real trouble.

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Gorgeous ‘Forellenschluss’ lettuce.

The ‘Forellenschluss’ lettuce above is one of the most beautiful lettuces we’ve ever grown. It’s an Austrian variety whose name translates as “speckled trout,” and it’s lovely in the field and on the plate. I’m letting the few heads I have go to seed (if our enemies don’t get them first) because this a variety I want to plant again and share with other growers.

Most of our lettuces are nearly done for the season; those that remain are left deliberately to go to seed for a fall replanting. When lettuces and other greens get too hot they turn sharp and bitter and tough and are best for chicken treats instead of cool, fresh salads. The kale will keep going through the summer, and I’ll seed lettuces again once the tomatoes have put on some substantial growth so their foliage can shade the delicate greens.

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The eastward view along our ridgeline in late summer two years ago.

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The westward view along the same ridgeline, taken a few days ago.

One of our biggest goals for this year has been to improve our pasture management, with the ultimate intention of grazing livestock on our land. N has done an incredible job of both mowing the pasture as well as learning our complicated and infuriating gated pipe system to use our limited irrigation water efficiently. We think the results of his hard work speak for themselves: it’s pretty clear from the photos above that our pasture is in far better shape now than it was when we purchased this farm nearly two years ago. Well-managed intensive mob grazing is our next step.

With that, we’re off to continue our ongoing battle against whistle pigs, squirrels, deer, grasshoppers and all the rest. Stay calm and stay safe out there.

 

 

Fantastic beasts

As we’ve mentioned previously, we want rich, abundant, diverse life here at Quiet Farm. We can best accomplish this by planting a wide variety of different plants (rather than a monoculture), by avoiding chemicals, sprays and poisons and by learning to live with socially-unacceptable “weeds.” Here are a few beautiful creatures that have been spotted on our farm recently!

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Two-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Papilio multicaudata).

Butterflies (and moths, to a lesser extent) are hugely important pollinators and are indicative of healthy ecosystems, so we’re always happy to see them flitting about the farm. The presence of butterflies typically indicates a healthy environment for other unseen invertebrates, too. This two-tailed swallowtail, which expired in our garlic bed, is particularly gorgeous.

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This week in flowers: June 1

We’re working hard at creating space for a diverse array of organisms at Quiet Farm. We want plants blooming and flowering and setting seed, plants in every stage of life, throughout the season. We want our plants and trees to provide food and pollen and a home for all manner of things. We want to be a welcoming haven for songbirds and bees and insects and hummingbirds and toads and raptors and every other winged and crawling creature. We want not monoculture but polyculture, a place that mimics a natural ecosystem as closely as possible. We want life, and lots of it, everywhere we look and listen.

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If we spent all our time spraying poisons and pulling “weeds,” or removing plants that didn’t fit a perfect garden aesthetic, we’d have none of this. No birdsong, no beneficial insects, no pollinators. Instead, we have a farm that bursts with color and vibrancy and life.

The world is furious and raging right now. In response: plant something colorful. Grow something delicious. Create something beautiful. Cook something nourishing. Wishing you and yours a calm, peaceful and healthy week.

The meat of the matter

The past two months have exposed a great number of frailties in systems we’ve long taken for granted. From child care to health care, we’ve learned firsthand that most – if not all – of our societal structures are built on debt-ridden quicksand. Nowhere has this fragility been more apparent than in our food supply, long the envy of less-developed nations.

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Mmmm…meat in tubes. Delicious.

If you’ve ever traveled in the Caribbean or Africa or Asia – really, anywhere outside of the U.S. and Europe – you know that a standard Western grocery store is a thing of miracles. The glossy, perfect produce, appealingly stacked in lush displays. With artificial thunderstorms! Acres of cold-storage, displaying hygienically shrink-wrapped packages of beef, pork, chicken and fish, none of which resemble the animal they once were. The deli abounds with cheeses and olives and overflowing dishes of prepared foods, enticingly displayed on beds of ornamental kale.  Aisle upon aisle of boxed mixes and snack foods and sodas and candy and cookies and chips, plus thousands of cleaning products and toiletries and other various and sundry items, all brightly-colored and stocked in abundance. A standard Western grocery store never has bare shelves, because that violates its very reason for existing – that we have so much, we can replenish each item before it’s even made its way to the check-out.

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Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

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Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

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One potato, two potato

Last year we planted potatoes for the first time and achieved a reasonable level of success for a freshman effort, though our part of Colorado isn’t at all suited for potato growing. To our south and east, however, you’ll find the San Luis Valley: the second-largest fresh potato-growing region in the country and justifiably famous for the crop. Their loose, sandy soils are much better for potatoes than our heavy, rocky clay.

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Last season’s potato towers.

But like any stubborn farmer, we love being told what we can’t grow, so that we can try it anyway. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be planting potatoes in the ground and so opted for potato towers: layers of soil, compost, newspaper and straw in a wire cage, with seed potatoes nestled gently in between. We planted about one and a half pounds of seed potatoes in each of three potato towers, and yielded about twenty pounds of potatoes in total – not bad, considering the minimal growing space and effort required, but not the thirty-plus pounds we were hoping for. And some of the potatoes were really tiny, like the size of marbles. Not very practical.

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Farm update: April 27

Hello there. How are things in your world? It’s an odd and unsettled time, to be sure. Here at Quiet Farm we’re keeping our heads down and our hands busy as we navigate the seasonal weather shifts that have us careening from wind to rain to sun to hail and back again, all in the space of a few minutes.

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House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus).

Spring is underway, slowly but surely, and our diverse bird life reflects that. The bald eagle pair we’d been keeping an eye on has vanished, presumably for colder climes; now the gorgeous call of the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) marks our days. Watching the scrappy magpies fight off aggressive egg-stealing ravens is decent entertainment, too.

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The sourdough bandwagon

Here’s what N and I have learned in the five-odd weeks since this madness really kicked off: the things we’ve been doing for years – growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, buying only secondhand, cutting our own hair – are exactly what all of America seems to want to do right now. Listen up, everyone: we’re cool and we’re on-trend and we are probably influencers too. We’re going to call ourselves influencers, anyway. We’d like to influence you to bake sourdough, mostly because no one can find any yeast yet people still really, really like fresh bread.

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Really, what’s better than fresh bread and good butter?

I’m not at all surprised by the gardening and the bread baking, truly. People have extra time on their hands and want to do something both purposeful and satisfying, plus spring has arrived in most places and it’s a pleasure to be outside. But the sourdough thing? That did take me by surprise, as sourdough has a reputation for being so tricky and difficult and obsessive and a little weird because people name their sourdough starters and refer to them as pets. But then of course all of the country’s commercial yeast disappeared somewhere so it’s only natural that everyone would turn to sourdough, and people also need new pets in this time of isolation, kind of like Wilson in Castaway, so it all sort of makes sense.

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Chick lit

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about how, in addition to guns, seeds, toilet paper and yeast, Americans have “stress-bought all the baby chickens.” For the record, N and I would like to point out that raising chicks was always in our 2020 plan, even before this pandemic wreaked havoc on the universe. And so it happens that ten chicks now reside in a makeshift fort in our sunroom, deftly constructed of cardboard, repurposed pallets, a vintage metal fireplace guard, free Harbor Freight tarps, and salvaged window screens. This chicken palace is a thing of architectural beauty, make no mistake.

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Bielefelder

What distressed me most about that NYT article – and to be fair, this happens every Easter – is how many people buy chicks (and puppies, and kittens…) without thinking beyond their cuteness stage. Do you know anything about keeping chickens? Where do you plan to house them? How will you keep them safe from predators? What if you end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most municipalities? This flock will be our fourth, and before we had chickens at our old house we did a ton of research on how to keep them safe, healthy and happy.

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