Archive for the ‘Organics’ Category

Ways to Compost

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009


Composting Revisited

About a year ago, I started composting only after recommending this technique through this column for at least a year prior to that. Why did it take so long?  The answer is, unlike most of humanity, I don’t do change so well. However, I am finding that if I keep positive change on the forefront of my consciousness, it can be executed incrementally thus the adventure in composting began.

We have a stacked composter. Compost needs to be turned regularly to stay viable, some folks like rolling barrels, I like to see what’s going on so I purchased a series of six inch high square, interlocking wall units. When stacked up, my composter reaches a height of about thirty inches, and I can move the composter by un-stacking it, restacking it next to my compost pile, and shoveling the compost into the newly stacked square unit thus turning the whole pile over, or more important, separating partially composted material from fully composted material (on the bottom). The fully composted material is dark, rich, soil like material, ready for distribution in the garden or use in compost tea, while the partially composted material is, well, just plain nasty if you’re not into this sort of thing.

So here’s the rub, after a year of composting household greens, there is not much compost to show for it. Granted, I have made regular withdrawals of composted material for brewing compost tea, but being an American, I want more! Many clients of my clients have been composting their leaves and missing the important turning the pile part of the composting process. They end up with stacks of dry, un-composted yard waste. Additionally, whole leaves are slow to compost. And require a good deal of space before they reduce to a manageable size. However, shredding the leaves with a lawnmower, or a mulcher will reduce the size of the leaves by ten to one.

Leaves added to a home composter like mine that is being used for kitchen green waste composting will break down much faster if shredded first, and when mixed with the existing green waste compost, will provide a much richer composted product than either kitchen waste of yard waste will on their own. A recent NY Times article on composting indicated that leaf compost is much higher in beneficial fungal content that helps roots absorb nutrients, while kitchen greens composting is much higher in nutrients particularly nitrogen. Composting the two together can yield an especially effective product if done in a balanced way.

There are way too many leaves on most of our properties to compost in this manner and we still contend that most leaves can be mulched into your lawn, or mulched and used as shrub and perennial topdressing, saving money in organic material down the line, not to mention breaking the insane energy wasting process of hauling leaves away for composting for re-distribution. If you are already composting, look at mixing it up. If you’re not composting yet, start this fall. It will pay for itself in a healthier garden and you will be doing your part to start to create a culture that knows no waste.

Organic Soil Management

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

A Blueprint for Feeding Your Lawn and Garden:

Healthy gardens and lawns have one major component in common, that is healthy soil. Healthy soil is soil that breathes, and is alive. Healthy soil has twenty to forty percent organic content (composted material, peat moss, etc). Healthy soil is alive with fungi, microbes, and worms that feed on the organic material and convert it into a form that plant life can absorb. Healthy soil both absorbs moisture and drains once saturated. It is made up of inorganic materials of varying densities ranging from fine particles like clay and  silt, to sand, and even some gravel/aggregate (but not too much, and not much denser than 1/8th of an inch.

Though you can engage in extensive and expensive testing to find out exactly what your soil is made up of, including live microbial activity for example, it is simpler to stick with basic soil testing (through the Cornell Co-Operative Extension) to find out how acid/alkaline your soil is and what the ratios of Phosphorous, Nitrogen, and potassium are. The results of this testing will tell you what special amendments you need to add to get the right nutrient balance which is your baseline.

Soil density, organic and microbial content should be amended regularly throughout the year. In a basic program, compost tea (a tea brewed using live compost as the base material) should be applied at least 3 times a year, in April, June, and August. Compost tea is rich in trace minerals, live microbes, and beneficial fungi and will help re-invigorate your soil. The soil should also be fed with corn gluten in March/April to both give it a nitrogen boost and inhibit weeds from germinating. In soil that needs more vigorous attention, compacted soil with low organic content, aeration and addition of composted material is highly recommended. In a lawn this is also an excellent time to over seed, making sure the seed is lightly covered with the composted material.

With the presence of certain weeds, diseases, and insects, it becomes evident that the soil may be low in calcium, or over acidic. Liquid kelp, and/or fish emulsion are very high in calcium and will nurture the soil and the lawn, as well as reduce the occurrence of certain infestations.

Stay away from chemical fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides whenever possible. Though these will yield short term results, in the long run, they kill every living organism in the soil and weaken the root systems of your lawn and plants.


Switching to Organics

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

The Basis of Organic Garden Care

Many Westchester county residents are turning away from chemicals in their daily landscape care as concerns about continued exposure to children and animals, as well as issues regarding chemical run off into local bodies of water come to the fore. However, stopping the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides alone will not gain you healthier happy plants and grass. Local soils need to be rejuvenated and brought back to life for the health of the garden to revive.

In a natural setting with little or no human intervention, soil processes organic material and turns it into a form that plants can digest. Soil acts as the intestines of the plant world, and very much like human intestines, does this with microbial activity. Most soil in populated areas has less “live stuff” in it than one would find in a forest for example, due to stripping of topsoil in construction etc. If the soil has been treated repeatedly with chemical fertilizer and other chemicals, there is probably little or nothing left in the soil that will aid in the digestion of organics since chemical fertilizer, used at the recommended rates, feeds plants directly at the expense of killing microbial activity in the soil.

In order to create or lawn or garden that can digest organic material more effectively, it is necessary to re-introduce microbial activity. One sure fire way to do this is through regular addition of composted material, and compost tea.

Partially composted material will draw nitrogen from the soil and briefly drain plant material of nutrients so beware. Composted materials, like leaves, mulch, and green waste from the kitchen, must be composted down to the point where you can’t tell where it came from. At this point it is rich in nutrients and microbial activity. Compost tea is made from fully composted material. Basically, as the name implies, a tea is brewed from mixing composted material with water. This tea can be applied to the soil to re-introduce active microbes into it as well as nutrients and trace minerals. Gradually, the ability of the soil to process organic material will increase and plants will be healthier and deeper rooted as long as organic material and active microbes are added to it, very much like eating yogurt adds active enzymes to the human intestines.

Real Costs of Lawn care

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Our company, Greener by Design, has had an upsurge in local calls for pricing on organic lawn care. Consequently, we have a price sheet similar to what chemical lawn care companies have pricing various programs in thousands of square feet per year. We are not unique in this, there is a national organic franchise offering services locally that operates similarly. Interestingly though, despite the growing concern for the environment, consumer preferences are still very price driven.

It is ironic that the same factor raises our concern for the environment and makes a more harmonious lifestyle seem too expense.  Specifically it is the price, and after effects of oil. Most of our environmental issues have to do with being a petrochemical industrial society. Carbon from oil production and usage accounts for a large percentage of our global warming issues. Plastic products and oil byproducts are the source for a good deal of our pollution. The fact that we are running out of oil has both made it (and our lives) more expensive and food prices are going up as more acreage is dedicated to growing alternatives. As a culture we are driven to alternatives that appear too expensive given how costly our lives have become, a “catch 22” situation.

The truth is however, that getting off of oil products like chemical fertilizers and pesticides is only expensive for the first year. Here is why; lawns and gardens that have chemical nitrogen and pest controls applied to them at the manufacturers recommended rates have dead soil. These chemicals basically kill all the biological agents in the soil that help plants digest organic material like leaves, and grass clippings for example. Chemical fertilizers feed plants directly, similar to if we were all to take food intravenously and kill off the symbiotic organisms in our intestines.

The result of killing the biological is that lawns can no longer digest mulched organic material like grass clipping and leaves and so develop “thatch” requiring additional services. Thatch is removed; leaves are blown and removed using more energy. Soil is further depleted and holds less water as it has less and less organic material, more water is needed to keep plant material alive as there is less organic material to hold moisture.

When you look at the cost as a whole, not even considering the carbon footprint left by chemical fertilizers, blowers, municipal trucks hauling leaves, etc, the chemical approach is more expensive in terms of labor, and water costs. Consumers tend to focus on the initial application cost alone and don’t see the increased water usage and the blower and leaf collection service cost (which is supplemented by municipal governments that collect and remove leaves with taxpayer dollars). 

To convert your lawn to organics from years of chemical use takes more than just putting some organic fertilizer down. Much like people who have had their intestines depleted by heavy antibiotic use are told to eat yogurt with live cultures in it to re-establish digestive agents in their intestines, it is necessary to restore the biological agents in the soil so that it is better able to digest the organic material. In addition to using chemical herbicides which are known to kill helpful biological agents in the soil, the national franchises miss this point as do many consumers. Consequently, the first year of organic lawn care can be more costly, but following years will be equal to or less than chemical applications. The reason is not the cost of the applications themselves by the way, but the fact that your lawn and garden is now a mulch eating machine. Grass clippings and leaves no longer need to be moved, but simply mulched into the lawn. Higher organic content means you use less water since the soil will retain moisture better. Live soil means deeper healthier roots and stronger more valuable plant material. Stronger plant material means less disease and insect infestations which in turn means lower mortality and replacement as well as little or no pesticide us. Less pesticide use and elimination of chemical fertilizers means stronger ecology and development of beneficial insects that prey on plan predators.

The punch line here is pay a little more in the first year to get your plants off of their chemical addiction and you will reap the benefits in healthier, stronger, more valuable plants in the years to come. You will reduce your water costs (which go up 6% a year), and eliminate the need for blowers on your property. You will be feeding the soil directly with the clippings and leaves that land on it and reducing the need to amend the soil and feed it as often as you did when you were chemically fertilizing, and you will turn your property in a carbon sequestering machine instead of increasing your carbon footprint by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides (6lbs of carbon released into the atmosphere to make 1 pound of chemical fertilizer).

Should We Ever Use Chemical Fertilizers?

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

 Should We Ever Use Chemical Fertilizers? Our basic stand on chemical fertilizers has two legs. The first is that chemically produced nitrogen comes from oil and has a tremendous carbon footprint-6.7 pounds of carbon go into the atmosphere for every pound manufactured. The second is that chemical fertilizers kill microbes that breakdown organic material in the soil, basically rendering topsoil dead and inert. Kind of like bypassing the human stomach and intestine  if people were chemically fed.


Those seem like two excellent reasons to never use chemically produced nitrogen, except when one considers potted plants. Potted plants are not really part of an ecosystem when you consider how they are used. Larger pots that contain trees and shrubs may be the exception, but generally potted plants are either plants adapted to interiors, or filled with annuals that wont survive the year.


In the case of interior plants, none of thee plants are grown organically to begin with. As seedlings they are raised and managed with chemicals in Florida, Hawaii, California, South America, and Africa. They are not even grown in soil as we know it, but instead are raised in “growing medium”, often mixes of mulch, pearlite, vermiculite, and some sand. Then they arrive eventually in our homes and or offices pumped up with fertilizer and pesticides. Converting them to organic fertilizers takes a year of intensive work and often means smelling up the home with fish emulsion, manure, and the like.


In the case of annuals, again, just like interior plants, these are chemically raised, fed, and maintained. Since they won’t last the year, is it worth it to convert them from chemical to organic soils? On the other hand, we will have no oil, and therefore no chemical fertilizers in the next forty years, so we better wrap our minds around this one. Now it is arguable, that one can keep a stock of live organic soil on hand at all times, particularly if one is composting, and convert these poor chemically addicted waifs over with intensive therapy. The question is, is there value in this approach?


An Argument For Composting

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I grew up in New York City, the heart land of waste removal and disposal. You put your garbage outside your back door and it goes away. Your home is as cluttered or uncluttered as your ability to put things out the door. The other side of this was that if there was a garbage strike, which inevitably occurred in the heat of the summer, garbage would pile up on the sidewalk stinking to high heaven. All associations with “waste” on this level are as something not to be handled and to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. It is no wonder that there is so little composting in American society.

With the exception of human waste (urine and Feces) composting was the pre-industrial way to handle waste in many cultures,. Human waste is generally too toxic to compost like most carnivorous animal waste, and generally was run back into bodies of water to the chagrin of downstream neighbors, or was buried. Any non carnivorous animal organic waste (vegetables, leaves, cow manure, horse manure) was put into a compost pile. I first learned this visiting a farm as an adolescent and my first reaction was “ewwww”. The farmer chuckled and showed myself and my class the whole process from beginning to end, leftover food and cow poop goes in, it is digested and “cooked” by microbes, composted humus comes out. The most shocking thing was, it smelled right, you intuitively knew this was a good and natural process.

Waste disposal is hugely expensive for any municipality. Environmental News Network reports that in 2003, nearly a quarter of all municipal trash in the United States crossed state lines for disposal, according to the Congressional Research Service. Ten states imported at least 1 million tons of trash that year, up from only two states in 2001. At issue for many importing states is the smell and the threat to the environment if the garbage is handled improperly — reasons that more urban trash is winding up in rural communities where political resistance is likely to be minimal.
For instance, my home city of New York now transports more than 1,300 tons of garbage each day to Fox Township, Pa., located in hilly hunting country 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Not only is the cost of transporting waste huge financially, but it is also tremendous environmentally.

Composting is the way to give back to the land. It builds soil culture by adding organics and active microbes to the soil. It helps plants digest organics through maintaining a vital and alive soil culture, and it eliminates chemically produced nitrogen which is an oil product and as such has a large carbon footprint. A return to home composting of organic waste will not only help cut costs for municipalities, but reduce oil usage, your carbon footprint, and be beneficial to the landscape.

Converting To Organics From Chemicals:

Monday, April 7th, 2008

      I converted my lawn from chemicals to organics by making it go “cold turkey”. I stopped applying pesticides and fertilizers  and  kept my fingers crossed. Anyone who has tried this knows exactly what happened, the lawn deteriorated steadily over a year and by the following spring I had a terrific lawn of crab and onion grass. It took me another full year to get it looking better and two years to have something my wife was proud of.

    The lawn, like any garden space, has to be fed, and weeds dealt with. Presumably if the root system is strong in any plant from tree to sod, than insect infestations will be minimal and manageable without pesticides, but going cold turkey simply weakens the plants and invites disease , weeds and insects. Whether it be a lawn or a perennial bed, the conversion from chemical care to organic means there will be a decline of some kind, but you can limit and shorten this decline by taking action.

    Chemical fertilizers  aside from having a huge carbon footprint, kill topsoil and the microbes that help topsoil, or humus, convert organic material into a form that plant root systems can absorb. Therefore the first action to take (besides stopping chemical feeding) is to restore organic content and begin to establish microbial activity. The most effective way to do this is with active compost of course, but let’s face it, if you have been chemically feeding your garden, you probably don’t have any compost.

There are a number of active products on the market that can help jump start your soil culture. Many folks recommend compost tea, this is tea made form live compost. It is also used for controlling some diseases in the garden, though there is much debate on the effectiveness of compost teas for this purpose.   Though some may question compost tea as a means of controlling disease, there is no doubt that saturating your soil with compost tea will help re-introduce active microbes into your soil.

 Another good product is plant healthcares bio-pack which also re-introduces live organisms into the soil. Basically, you will want to work with products that contain active Mycorrhizae

What are Mychorizae? 
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic associations that form between the roots of most plant species and fungi. This symbiotic relationship is characterized by the equitable movement of sugars to the fungus and inorganic nutrients fixed by the fungi move into the plant, thereby providing a critical linkage between the plant root and soil. The fungal hyphae take up nutrients from soil solution and transport them to the root. By this mechanism, mycorrhizae increase the effective absorptive surface area of the plant. In nutrient-poor or moisture-deficient soils, nutrients taken up by the extramatrical hyphae (hyphea existing within soil matrix) can lead to improved plant growth and reproduction. As a result, mycorrhizal plants are often more competitive and better able to tolerate environmental stresses than nonmycorrhizal plants.

Remember also to incorporate organic material into your soil. Orgnisms like mycorrhizae need organic material. Bagged compost, though sterilized, is rich in organic content. Products like peat moss however, tend to be acid based and should be used in limited quantities. Many environmentalists argue that peat moss is harvested much faster than it can produce and therefore is not a sustainable source for organic material. Also look for organic fertilizers. The kind of fertilizer you should use really depends so much on what type of soil you have. A great site for working out additives is the  extremely green gardening company site:

Greener Landcare Through Onsite Leaf Mulching

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

In an article on line in grounds magazine, Zac Reicher and Glenn Hardebeck Reviewed studies done at several well known universities on this topic. In reviewing these studies, leaves were mulched directly into the  turf. Formal mulching devices like the flowtron mulcher were not needed, instead, leaves  were mulched with a mulching mower on top of the turf:

“The easiest and cheapest way to dispose of leaves is to mulch them into the turf. This is not a new idea, but universities have only recently compiled enough data to determine that tree-leaf mulching has no long-term negative effects on the turf. Studies at Michigan State, Cornell, Rutgers and Purdue have concluded that mulching tree leaves is an excellent disposal method that does not harm healthy turf…… After application to the plots, we immediately mowed the leaves with a mulching mower”.

They did find that it was necessary to add nitrogen to the turf to balance out the high organic content of the leaves which are low in nitrogen, and found that there was literally no detrimental effect to mulching the leaves into the lawn:

“ We found that even the high rate of tree leaves had no effect on turf visual quality, color or growth. Although we expected tree leaves to tie up nitrogen in the soil, we saw no long-term effects of tree leaves on turf growth regardless of the nitrogen rate we applied”

The study found that by using a mulching mower, the leaves would reduce overall fertilization costs, and eliminate the cost of gathering the leaves, and trucking them out to a larger composting facility. The recommendation is that golf courses, ground maintenance crews, and by implication, communities of home owners could save money through simple on site mulching.

For more details on the results of this study, go to n

Lets give some serious thought to how we  manage leaves. Is it really so hard to mulch the leaves on site with a mulcher or a mulching mower rather than blowing them out to the curb and removing them? Might it not in fact be simpler and easier?