Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Making of Black Gold

Spring is an amazing time of the year isn't it, right before your eyes you get to watch that which seemed dead spring to life and the seasons go from cold to warm in a span that seemingly is to short. With that in mind we at LITFM are prepared to bid April a warm farewell as this is the last article of the month and May looms large up ahead. Today we have another double-header combination of a plant spotlight, and main article. Originally I had planned for Orchid Primrose to be the plant spotlight but the plant isn't very photogenic, and half of the plant spotlight's value is a clear photo of the subject. In it's place is an interesting and under-utilized plant under the name of Annual Passion vine, Passiflora incarnata.

This is the first bloom from a pair of passion vines grown from seed purchased in a packet at Lowes, burpee apparently does not sell these seeds anymore, what a shame with a flower like that.

Now it is important to note that in literature the terms passion vine, passion flower and passion fruit all refer to the same species of plants and may be used interchangeably, however I’ll be using them in context, passion vine means the plant and so on.

First and foremost is the fact that most members of the passiflora species are aggressive climbers and use curling tendrils to scramble up any vertical surface be it a wall or another plant. The name ‘Passion Vine’ is derived from the physical aspects of the plant and is from the ‘Passion of Jesus’ in Christian theology. Roughly around 15th or 16th centuries Spanish missionaries noted the unique shapes found in this plant and in particular the flowers as symbols of the last days of Jesus and in particular his crucifixion.  The following parts of the plant were taken to mean specific symbolisms:

  1. The pointed leaf tips were thought to represent the Holy Lance.
  2. The tendrils that the plant climbs with were thought to represent the whips used in the flagellation of Christ.
  3. The ten petals and sepals represented the ten faithful apostles, excluding St. peter the denier and Judas Iscariot the betrayer.
  4. The chalice shaped ovary with its receptacles represented a hammer or perhaps the Holy Grail itself.
  5. The 3 stigmas represented the three nails, while the 5 anthers below them the 5 wounds, for note four by nail one by lance.
  6. The blue and white colors of the flower in radiating bands represented Heaven and Purity or a halo.
  7. The flowers filaments represent the crown of thorns.

Biblical symbolism aside the passion vine is an easy to grow plant that sometimes is sold as “annual” passion vine. In fact as I mentioned before I got the seeds for the passion vine pictured above at Lowes in a Burpee seed packet, apparently that seed line has been discontinued. The seed are somewhat fickle to germinate as out of the 20 seeds only two germinated and those two were incredibly temperamental at first. With patience you can have some young passion vines suitable for careful maturing in a spot that receives some morning sun has good soil quality and regular water and fertilizer. I honestly don’t know if it would take anyone else two years to get a bloom out of these vines but the picture above was taken just a week prior to the writing of this article. Now why use passion vines, well the answer there is simple, the lobed foliage is a deep green color while the exotic and sweetly scented flowers are simply stunning. When you consider the custard-yellow colored fruit which is edible you get a wonderful plant that does a lot and asks for very little.

Onward to the main attraction, ‘The Making of Black Gold’, a brief discussion on how BL2’s compost product is made.  A number of you out there reading this may have had the chance to hear me speak about soil science on more then one occasion at the Neighborhood Grange / Sustainable Neighbors meetings. Compost is a very personal thing, everyone out there who has successfully operated a compost pile has their own way to produce it. Compost literally provides to you what you put into it, and to that end our own Carolina Gold is a specific mixture of key ingredients that creates a balanced compost product.

The bucket is used to hold horticultural waste such as plant parts and soil while the Tupperware container is kept in the fridge and is used to store kitchen scraps.

The process starts with kitchen scraps and horticultural waste from normal greenhouse operations which are collected in special sealed containers and then added to a pre-composter. The pre-composter is simply a 35 gallon lidded trashcan with holes in the bottom. 

 The Pre-Composter is a simple affair, a 35 gallon wheeled and lidded trashcan used to hold composting materials.

The pre-composter serves as an area where initial decomposition can occur while decomposers such as worms can introduce themselves to the compost and be protected from predators. The pre-composter is emptied only when it is full to the brim with materials and this may take a few months to do depending on the season.  Once the precomposter is added to the main bin, regular applications of soil and grass clippings complete the effect while alternating layers of straw and pine straw maintain aeration.

What you see here on the left is the actual compost pile with it's pinestraw 'cap' still on, to the right is the leaf mold pile, which will be moved over once the main pile is emptied.

Looking more like an mangled lump then a compost pile this is the 'slow burn' pile, a larger pile where large branches, excavated soil and anything else that will take longer then a year to rot.

 The best tools to manage a compost pile are a rake, shovel, pitchfork and wheel barrel, as these four tools allow you to do all functions with a minimum of strain on yourself, I do recommend long-handled tools to make life easier.

The total time for everything the naturally decompose is about eight months, so the following spring after the pile was last emptied it has shrunk to half it’s original height and the cap of pine straw is carefully removed. Once the cap of pine straw is removed the next step is to collect the compost material and use a shovel or pitchfork to move it into a wheelbarrow in preparation for sifting or application

 Now with the pine straw cap removed you can see the good stuff underneath, apparently nearly a year of decomposition has done wonders to the stuff in this compost pile.

Now this is an ancient debate amongst gardeners, to sift or not to sift? I personally prefer sifting because it takes all the chunks and bits out however you can use raw compost as a soil amendment, the problem is it may or may not look very good in the picture below you see my basic sifting setup. The wheel barrel on the left holds the unsifted compost from the pile, the silver-gray bucket has the sifting screen,  the beige tub is where the sifted compost goes when the bucket is full, and the black nursery pot is used to hold the 'chunks' left over from sifting. The sifting screen isn't very fancy, in fact it's a piece of bent hardware cloth, that drapes inside the bucket but also hooks around the edges of the bucket. If you look carefully at the tailgate of the truck you will see a pair of black gloves, I generally wear those in case of fire ants, they're the rubber coated type.
 Finally BL2's infamous green pickup truck, that vehicle that strikes fear in the hearts of bad landscapers everywhere makes it's first cameo appearance in the blog.

 Sifting is accomplished with a side-to-side rocking motion or hand motion effectively shaking out all the fine and medium particles in the compost while leaving the coarse and large ones atop the screen. Eggshells however have to be re-crushed and passed around the screen as they rarely break down enough to pass through the mesh. The final product will of course have some visible eggshell bits which adds calcium to the soil which encourages good soil structure and fertility.

 The screen is incredibly simple, yet it works quite well, it's draping nature makes sure the bucket never fills beyond 4 gallons.

The finished compost product due to the sifting is more regular, the particles are even and, as a bonus it blends everything in the compost evenly so there are no areas of clay, lumps or other irregularities. This blending also serves to ensure that the final product has less variation in fertility and quality. As the picture below attests, in short what comes out of that sifting process is black gold.

Now I defy you to tell me that isn't some good looking compost, makes me want to go plant something right now!

The final stop in the process that produces 'Carolina Gold' is the measuring, as noted before the sifted compost is stored in Rubbermaid storage totes of the 18 gallon size. For sale the compost is packed in gallon/4.5 pound bags like the one sitting on the lid, and is distributed to BL2 customers upon request by either tote or by bag. About 30% of all compost produced is used in the test gardens. It is a little known fact that the reinforced mound bed whose center mound is raised some two feet is centered over a pile of Carolina gold a foot thick the lower portions of the bed are over 4" thick layers. 

Bag it and tag it! This is the next to last stop for our prize soil conditioner,  the next stop is in a garden somewhere near you perhaps.

In short, the way we produce compost at BL2 is one of many ways to make compost. In my decade of time as a landscaping professional, I have seen dozens of types of composters and several times as many methods, styles and concepts. The fact is not a single one is wrong, they are all different and they all have advantages and disadvantages. My way is angled to someone who has the tools but not the time to fuss over a compost pile but also has no shortage of good materials to feed said pile and ample amounts of pine straw.  I should note for all of you that there are several major forms of compost pile as noted below.

1.      Open Pit Type – literally a open it in the ground
2.      Single Bin Type – A single chicken wire bin held up by stakes (the type I use).
3.      Multi Bin Type – Multiple bins allowing for easy turning, typically made of treated lumber, plastic resin or sometimes concrete dividers.
4.      Rotating Barrel – popular in some places the barrel does help make turning easier, and comes in two varieties, horizontal and vertical rotation types.
5.      Mound Type – The opposite of the pit type,  this one is heaping pile capped with soil or mulch.

Additionally it is important to note the dos and don’ts of managing compost piles.
1.      Do use vegetable scraps.
2.      Do use potting soil.
3.      Do use dried brown leaves (dropped leaves in autumn are perfect.)
4.      Do use Leaves that are still green. (think grass clippings.)
5.      Do NOT use fats, or meat. (May attract vermin)
6.      Do NOT use bread. (May attract vermin)
7.      Do NOT keep pile wet. (will cause odor and may stop all decomposition)
8.      Do NOT use wood. (May attract termites)

As a final note for soil conservation and composting remember this, every time I see the Department of Agriculture at an public event they have these neat little pins that say "No Farm, No Food."  and I agree but when it comes to preserving the soil I would insist they should say "No Soil, No Farm, No Good!".

Thank you again for tuning into a somewhat long post on composting, I hope you enjoyed the look at composting and the way we make compost at BL2. Next weeks article will be about fertilizer alternatives.

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