Did your know that there are more than 6 billion microbial life forms in only 1 teaspoon of cured compost? That's more than all the people on Planet Earth, at least for now, right?
Animal manure is not used for composting in soil block gardening. Remember, the block mix will be wet like oatmeal and the structure of the manure does not hold up like the strong, fibrous, lignum rich vege compost. Also, your hands will be mixing it while it's all wet, and if some manure wasn't broken down thoroughly, it might react unfavorably with your skin due to certain organic acids. Use gloves if all you have is animal manure compost.
However, there is the exception to the rule: If your animal manure was composted by worms, also known as vermicomposting, it is completely safe from any harm. The worm's "guts" break down all forms of pathogens in the soil and manure and convert it into mineral rich, pathogen-free soluble nutrients. Studies have proven that a worm will take a nasty strain of E. coli and break it down, and when the "castings" come out, E. coli is gone!
The break down of your compost:
1.) Increase the amount of green, or nitrogen rich materials. Fresh grass clippings and fresh animal manure are perfect. (It's O.K., use a little "fire starter" manure!)
2.) After every layer, sprinkle alfalfa meal over the surface. Use up a 20 # bag for each 4'x4' pile. Watch it cook with this trick!
3.) Turn the pile over a few times in the first 5 weeks. Aerations will speed up the process. If turning is too hard, try jabbing lots of holes deep into the heart of the pile. Use a bamboo stick, or, use a fancy compost aerator tool.
4.) Make your pile with the smallest sized materials possible. These small
These tricks will give you cured compost in less than 2 months.
Did you know cole crops or brassica family crops love eggshells? Try drying some, crushing into tiny pieces, and mix it in your blocking mix. Yum! Did you know soil grown with onions have an antiseptic property to them? If you can, always use onion soil from last year's onions to make your blocking mix recipe with the soil. See recipes.
Did you know that the first market gardeners who sold transplants started them in pieces of sod turned up side down? They would make a seed hole and water and that's it! It actually works quite well. Take a deep and turn it upside down and poke a hole and plant cucumbers, melons, squash, or lettuce and water well. Now that's a free soil block!
Try even growing your own patch of rye or grass in good soil. It will cut a lot easier and seed better. Seed very thickly and use it next year after you cut the grass and throw your clippings in your compost pile.
Make the Best Blocking Mix: Make your own Vegetable-Based Compost, Turf Compost and Vermicompost. Theory and Practice.
Have you ever noticed vegetables growing out of your compost pile in your back yard? Cucumbers, melons, squashes, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins have volunteered more than once in my kitchen compost pile. What was in yours? This got me thinking that something in those piles were just right for germinating seeds, vegetative growing, flowering, and fruiting, all from Vegetable Compost. Vegetable Compost is an all organic, green(live or green matter collected for the pile from vegetable and fruit peelings, grass clippings, green leaves, fresh food scraps, green hay and weeds pulled from gardens) and brown(dried leaves, dried grass, dried weeds, straw, yellow hay, coffee grounds, wood chips used sparingly, dried weeds) materials and soil that have been decomposed and recombined by various microscopic life forms like good bacteria and helpful fungus.
Compost happens naturally all around us: a forest floor collects leaves and animals die and plant roots get recycled back into the earth, where soil microbes and earthworms feast to their heart's content. While doing so, they release nutrients to living plants like elements, minerals, trace minerals, and this whole process creates fertility. Compost improves the structure of soil blocks, meaning your mix will be easier to work with, will have good aeration and water-retention qualities, and will be resistant to erosion. Compost also provides nutrients for plants in the form of organic acids, which makes the nutrients in the soil block available for plants. It also provides organic matter, which resists leaching of nutrients. Organic matter is dead plant and animal (microscopic) residues of all kinds and at all stages of decomposition, whereas one microorganism feeds off the dead or dying other microorganisms. This means that your soil block plant will be healthy, and a healthy plant is insect and disease resistant.
A Compost Pile is something you can do to create or mimic nature's fertility. The feeding frenzy of the microbes and the recombining of the pile creates the warmth that can germinate seeds at different temperatures within the pile. While the pile decomposes it releases carbon dioxide and water, which explains why it shrinks so much when it's cured. Cured compost means it's reached it's maximum temperature for the specific ratio of ingredients that were placed in it. Try jabbing that kitchen pile with a bamboo stake and then feel the tip and how warm it is. There are three temperatures of compost that happen, thermophilic (113-149 degrees), mesophilic (50-113 degrees) and vermiphilic (a combination of the two by the act of worm composting). This just means that the hottest pile has the least amount of finished product, but has more immediately released nutrients for plants. We want thermophilic compost for our blocks. After it cools down, the remaining organic matter is in the form of humus. Humus is the living and dead bodies of microbial life. Humus has trapped the nitrogen in the breakdown process. (Organic matter is humus and undecomposed organic matter.) It has stabilized the nitrogen so it will not be lost to decomposition, rapid solubility, and dissipation. Humus is where the plant roots will absorb, but, actually exchange their electric charges(+,-) and nutrients(think of a link exchange: I'll give you a calcium and you give me a carbon). This is a food bar for plant roots. Good quality humus says: Eat here. Get your food and move on to the next available humus (not hummus!). In soil block gardening, we rely on this natural, slow releasing biological process for nutrient release to the plants. If we would use any fertilizer, that would mean we have kept our plants in the blocks too long, and they have used up all the available nutrients. But, in our soil block nursery business, this is the exception, not the rule. You will want your plants in the garden, spread with more compost, than in the block.
Before we get into the Practice of the Compost Builder, let's take a look at the third ingredient after green vegetation and brown/dry vegetation, Soil. Soil is important for your compost and/or blocking mix because it contains a good starter supply of microorganisms. The busy little microorganisms have tied up essential nitrogens and nutrients in their little bodies and will release them back to the roots as they die and decompose. They also excrete organic compounds into the soil. This has been referred to as "soil glue", and help build soil structure. These organic compounds contain disease-curing antibiotics, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes all vital to a healthy soil block. Soil also adds more microbe diversity. The more ingredients your compost contains, the more available food sources there are for different species of the soil food web. Plan on having at least three different materials with three different textures plus soil for your pile. Think food bar for the compost critters. More is better! And finally, soil often contains clay and little rocks. As rocks get worked around, they release particles of dust which is an ancient source of minerals. And clay alone can harbor and exchange nutrients fairly well. What kind of soil do you use? Your best garden soil is preferred. Since you've been weeding it for a few years, I hope, it will contain less weed seeds and have good microbe diversity. If you can't spare garden soil, any soil will work, as long as it's free of herbicides and pesticides and fungicides and algaecides and any thing else with -cides in it. Try to find some under a deciduous tree or bush, but not walnuts. A forest floor minus the pine needles? A neighbors fill dirt? Or, have the neighborhood kid dig you a pit where you will fill it back up with compost materials and the soil you just took out.
Compost makers and piles vary from person to person and from text book to text book. The compost pile we are focused on here is proven out on our farm to work best for soil block making. The finished product will have a 30 to 1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. The finished pile will 1/3 to 1/4 of its original size, and will take less than 3 months to cure, provided you a.)build it all at once, b.)turn it over periodically c.) use smaller materials so they break down faster, d.)proper layering. See sidebars for getting cured compost even faster. O.K. Let's build a pile!
A compost pile is just that, a pile. It is unnecessary to use any container of any sort, so if you don't have anything, don't worry. We do like to use an old wire fence, though. It helps size up your pile when you build it, and is taken away when your done. You should have an idea where all your materials are and have a stock pile of kitchen waste on hand. Keep kitchen wastes in 5 gallon buckets with lids because you know it will stink! You'll need 1/3 dry brown materials, and 1/3 green materials, and 1/3 soil. You should always build a compost pile in the spring or the fall. Too hot or too cold will slow your microbes down. You should build it all at once so you can use it in three months. If you want to you can slowly add layer by layer, but it will take longer. Just make sure you finish with a soil layer. You want to build a compost pile 6 feet away from the base of an old oak tree near your garden hose. That is the ideal scenario; now for the rest of us: Make sure your location is shady and protected from the wind. Mark out a four foot by four foot area. This is the minimum requirement. Remember, this is compost for our soil block mix, so we don't need it for our garden. Just make a bigger pile if your plan on incorporating it into your garden.
Clear out your 4'x4' square or circle and loosen the soil to about 12" for drainage. Your first layer is for air circulation and it consists of roughage, or brush, stalks, or thin fruit tree clippings. Layer it up 3" high. The brown and green layers will be built 1-2" high at a time. The soil will be built up at 1/2" high, sprinkled over your green layer to prevent flies. On top of your roughage layer up a dry brown material and water well. Next, layer on a green material and water well. Next, sprinkle on some soil and water well. Now, back to brown, then green, then soil. Watering each layer well. Keep layering until you are up four feet high for a 4'x4'x4' pile. Cover with 1" of soil. Water regularly if it's dry out. Or, cover with a tarp if it's pouring rain. In about 2-3 weeks, jab a stake right into the heart of the pile. Keep it there for a few minutes and then pull it out and feel the temperature. Is it Hot? It should be. Is it turning from yellow to brown? Is it more earthy smelling than musty? Is the aroma like freshly plowed soil? Your pile is peaking, and in one more week it is ready to turn. Are your ready? Here we go.......
The turned pile will be right next to the old pile but will have a smaller base dimension, roughly 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet. This creates a more dense pile with more mass, since it is shrinking, isn't it? You can now leave it alone for 2-3 more months for a slow cure. See sidebar for speeding up the process. When is it ready? Your compost should be dark and rich looking. It should crumble in your hands. You should not be able to tell what the original ingredients look like. The shapes and textures should be even. It should smell like a forest floor after it rains. Go ahead, let your nose be your guide. Close your eyes, hold it up to your nose and take a deep breath..............Is it ready?
Tips: Avoid pernicious weeds like wild morning glory and bermuda grass roots. Avoid insect infested plants. Avoid pine needles, eucalyptus, walnut, cypress, and acacia leaves. Avoid poisonous plants. When you're ready to use your compost, screen it in a 1/2" hardware screen and throw the larger chunks on to the bottom of your next pile. I like to store some for block mix recipes, so I lay it out on a tarp and dry it down just a bit. Then, I just pick up the tarp and funnel it into large plastic barrels or totes for future use. Turf compost: The ideal "soil" in blocking mix for soil and compost!
The next best thing for compost in a soil block recipe is good 'ol fashioned turf compost. Turf compost is also known as "loam". Loam is made by stacking up field or turf sod upside down and on top of each other and let it decompose for a year or longer. Farmers in the past have relied on loam for their planting mixes because it was readily available and makes a superior grow medium. They would say that compost made from plants is 4 times better than compost made from animal manure, but compost made from plant roots is twice as good as plant compost! Many grasses and grains have deep, thick, fibrous root masses that create awesome compost. Cereal rye roots can grow up to six feet deep! If you have good pasture with good soil here's what I would recommend for next year's blocking mix compost:
First, sharpen up a turf or sod cutter. You can even cut sections or 1 foot strips with a lawn edger. Market gardeners, you can even rent a sod cutter to make a huge pile. With your sod cutter, cut little bricks 1'x 1' and stack them up in a 4'x 4' area with the first layer grass side up. Water thoroughly so you can see the soil glisten. Then, layer the next sod bricks grass side down, so grass is touching grass. Water. Next, grass side up again, so the dirt is touching dirt. Water. Alternate grass sides together and soil sides together until you're four feet high. Make sure to finish with soil side up and water throughly. This pile will be too heavy to turn, so aerate with sharp, deep sticks or bamboo poles. You can use the tricks in the sidebar to speed up the composting process, but this compost is best used in one year. It is the best. It has perfect soil structure or soil crumb, nutrient rich, and holds up to the rigors of block making.
Worm Castings or Vermicompost (Worm Compost):
Finally, the next best thing to vegetable or turf compost in the potting block recipes is worm castings. If you don't have time to make your own compost or can't buy it anywhere, as finding an all vegetable compost is nearly impossible to do, you can purchase worm castings. Worm castings are the digested food excretions from red worms. They can eat manure or vegetable wastes, and both are just fine. You can make your own fairly quickly, and there are numerous sites on the internet to help you out. We raise our own, but use the castings for worm compost teas. It takes the soluble nutrients and spreads them out a lot further than making blocks out of the straight vermicompost. We don't do the large scale worm raising any more, as that is back breaking! Worm castings are perfect for soil block making because all the nutriments and nitrogens are readily available and fertilization will never be needed until they get to the garden. If we are growing transplants for resale, we will always use worm castings blended with vegetable compost for the plants that get held extra long in the hot house, like tomatoes and peppers. It is such a wonderful product, and we are experimenting with ways to raise them without any extra labor. It's worth looking into the science of vermiculture. See Resources and Links for further education.