Hurrah! I have a real compost pile going. I followed the general guidelines in Steve Solomon’s book, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, see http://tinyurl.com/SolomonCompost . I made it big enough and layered it properly with garden soil to inoculate with soil microbes and cottonseed meal for extra nitrogen, and watered it properly with rain water plus some urine. It has heated up to 150ºF nicely. What inspired me was Steve’s suggestion to accumulate compostable brush in a pile over the season and let it dry. Then in the fall construct the compost pile. I’m a few months late, but I had the piles of dry stuff to work with, and it should compost quickly now, with the approach of warm weather instead of winter. When it’s finished I’ll mix it with some Complete Organic Fertilizer, for a high quality soil amendment.
I’m experimenting with another soil amendment – some biochar. Charcoal has a remarkable ability to hold trace minerals in it’s structure, as you can see here http://www.holon.se/folke/carbon/charring_methods.shtml and is very long lasting compared to compost. It is the foundation of some excellent historic garden soils found in the Amazon, called terra preta. Since I have a sizable meadow area with lots of last years dry flower stalks, I have lots of potential biochar. The customary way of getting rid of the dry flower stalks in a prairie is to burn the area – not practical in my confined area. So I came up with a way of burning them that works quite well to make biochar. I took an old rusty barrel from behind the garage, and to confine the heat and limit the air intake, I put an old rusty garbage can in the barrel. The rusty holes provided plenty of ventilation for the ‘pyrolysis’ stage of the burning. I stuff the garbage can with broken dry stalk and light the fire with a wad of newspaper and a match. Then as it burns down I break up more stalks in short lengths of about a foot and pitch them into the fire carefully so as they burn they settle down into the pile of glowing embers in the bottom of the can. When I have a fair amount of glowing coals, I let the fire die down and put the lid on the barrel to limit air access while I get some water. Then I douse the coals with water and put the lid back on to let everything cool. The next day I dump the char into a bucket and charge it with fertility by pouring on some nutrient rich liquid – urine works fine – and letting it soak. Now it’s ready to mix into the garden soil. Scattered lightly around the base of cabbage plants it’s reported to be a good snail, and presumably slug, deterrent. Maybe the squash bugs won’t like it either! For more on biochar see http://tinyurl.com/biochar22. The goal of course is to raise high quality, high brix produce in the garden – see http://tinyurl.com/gardenMaxNutrition