Composting Storm Debris: 4 Easy Methods

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TJ asks about composting storm debris:

“I’ve got a lot of debris from the storm still, plus I’ll be cutting down some trees soon. What do you think is the best way to avoid exporting those nutrients and to reincorporate them into the soil? I was thinking on doing some hugelkultur beds, but I’ve never done one and might have too much material. Any recommendations on the hugel beds and other ways to make use of these material?”

Yes – I certainly have some suggestions.

Method #1 for Composting Storm Debris: Throw it on the Ground

In Chapter 11 of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting I wrote:

“My dad and I started a food forest in his shady and infertile south Florida backyard. One weekend we piled up palm tree trunks, branches, logs, hedge trimmings, leaves, grass clippings and whatever else the neighbors were throwing out. The resulting stack of biomass was probably two feet tall and covered over a hundred square feet. In the middle and around the edges we planted fruit trees and edible perennials. Within a couple of months you could dig into the pile and find rich black soil, worms, and a wide variety of insects working together to rapidly convert that pile of “waste” into soil.”

This was what that mass of plant debris did:

DirtBeforeAndAfter

Just piling up all the trunks and leaves and debris will eventually give you rich results.

Stack them someplace out of the way or put them in rough piles right around trees or anywhere.

This pile broke down wonderfully in a little more than a year.

StickPile

When the sticks got brittle, I stomped on them. Just don’t do that if you’re in poisonous snake country.

Method #2 for Composting Storm Debris: Use Logs for Boundaries

I’ve also taken felled trees and chunks of trunk and used them to delineate paths in food forests.

growing sweet potatoes in the food forest

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It’s not always the prettiest method, but those hunks of logs keep the ground moist beneath them, harbor a variety of useful species, plus host fungi, which are an integral part of forest life.

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A year after throwing down piles of tree trunks and shredded tree company mulch, I was so amazed to see the many varieties of mushrooms which appeared that I did a post with 39 pictures documenting them.

Method #3 for Composting Storm Debris: Hugelkultur

TJ also asked about hugelkultur as a method for composting storm debris.

I must confess, I have never built a proper hugelkultur bed. I know it’s one of those super-popular things that permaculture gardeners do but I haven’t done one.

I did bury tree chunks and plant a jaboticaba on top:

composting storm debris

That led to sinking soil and the need to replant the tree within a year.

I honestly don’t know how hugelkultur beds will work in Florida overall. Organic material deteriorates at a frightening rate and sandy soil is likely to wash away from the top of the mounds. It’s probably worth building one as an experiment but I wouldn’t bet heavily on a method which comes from a cold climate with clay soils.

And hugelkultur may not even be what many think it is.

As Jack Spirko writes in a very interesting article for Permaculture News:

“The purpose of this mound is twofold.

1. Break down organic matter and build soil

2. Grow annual production while number one happens and/or growing short term perennials and nurse trees for later planting in other locations.

How do I know this? When I met Sepp in Montana in 2012 and watched him build about 4 linear kilometers of hugels, he told me so and I believed him.

I hear cries of heresy and blasphemy, but I am just telling you the way this system is actually used successfully. So strap in if you are upset now, indeed it gets worse from here. The big shocker is what happens next. One of them you may have a hard time believing…

1. The mounds over time sort of flatten and are left. At this point, the succession proceeds into long term perennial production. The key though is that a few seasons of annual cropping and short term perennials are used first. Generally in this case they remain bush, shrub, small tree, herbaceous and annual crop producers.

2. More often than above, gasp! The mound is at some point spread out and full on perennial systems are established or even grazing systems are boosted. This can produce astounding amounts of soil, the value of which if trucked in would be measured in 10’s of thousands of dollars per acre.

The primary purpose of hugels is building soil, production is of secondary concern. Getting production out of hugels makes the method practical but none the less, still secondary to the original intent. Very few edicts to the concept are even aware of why Sepp Holzer did hugels in the first place. Quite simply it was done because he had a ton of low value trees around and removing them was more costly than their value.”

If the primary purpose is building soil, the same can be done with much less labor than digging mounds requires. Throw the material in big piles and let it rot, then later spread it around. Florida’s hot and humid climate chews through most fallen trees in a couple of years, turning them into crumbly humus. If you build mounds, they are going to sink. Fast.

Method #4 for Composting Storm Debris: Biochar

Biochar is just charcoal making.

Charcoal has the capacity to hold onto nutrition and potentially act like humus in the ground. In sandy soils with high leaching, this is powerful. Humus disappears very quickly in Florida, and less quickly in colder climates, but charcoal is practically immortal.

I now add it to many of my compost piles for that very reason:

Simple_compost_pile_adding_biochar_to_compost

It will sit in the pile and soak up the good stuff, then later be spread around my gardens and trees.

If you have a lot of storm debris, just do something like this:

Then use that charcoal everywhere. Just don’t burn the trees into nothing – be sure you quench the fire and get the charcoal, as most of the good material will leave your property for the atmosphere if you let the fire go too long.

So – to answer the question “what’s the best method for composting storm debris?”

Any way that keeps the material on your land. Don’t give in to the convenience of letting the county take it or just burning it to ashes.

Trees are rich in carbon and other minerals that they’ve produced and mined from the soil, sometimes for generations. Don’t waste them. Even making islands of trunk chunks, leaves and branches around your fruit trees will greatly benefit the trees.

As has been said before “forests grow on the remains of forests.”

Use fallen trees to feed living ones and you’ll be surprised how they respond.

David-the-good-books-revised

Pumpkin Progress and Failure

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Earlier this week I posted a new video from the downhill pumpkin patch:

Though I pull in some good pumpkins, you can also see that the patch is under-performing – and I am not sure why. I should be getting a lot more. There are large areas yielding nothing.

All the hills were fertilized when the pumpkins started running. They’ve had lots of water and a good bit of sun in between, plus I kept the weeds down for the most part.

I am getting pumpkins, but many of these vines were grown from the seeds of fruit which were much larger than the ones I’m now pulling in.

Vine borers have sown up, but still – even the unaffected vines are mostly making 5-7lb fruit instead of 12-20lb.

My suspicion is that the soil here is not as good as advertised. I’ve been told again and again that the local soil is rich; however, I often had better luck with vegetables in my sandy North Florida yard.

If I owned the piece of ground I’m currently farming, I would dedicate myself to soil improvement via the planting of natural vegetative strips and chop-and-drop plants and trees, plus the addition of biochar and ashes.

I discovered with some exploratory digging that my sweet potato bed near the house is also a failure. It’s yielding a pathetic amount of small tubers, just like the previous bed I harvested earlier in the year.

I kicked tail growing sweet potatoes in North Florida but not here.

And I fed these beds with manure, compost tea, seaweed, compost and even some chemical fertilizer when everything else wasn’t helping.

I’m stumped. Something isn’t right.

David-the-good-books-revised

8 Ways to Use Fallen Trees after a Hurricane

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I hit the local resort yesterday and took a little time to record a video sharing my ideas on using trees felled by hurricanes – I think you’ll enjoy it:

No, I haven’t given up YouTube yet!

I have been spending a lot of time writing, though, in lieu of making intensively edited videos. Turned Earth: A Jack Broccoli Novel isn’t going to write itself. I should hit the 40,000 word mark today. Jack has just discovered he has powers beyond that of your average gardener – but will he be able to use those powers for good?

David-the-good-books-revised

Orange Peel Reforestation

OrangeGroves

Compost everything, orange peel edition:

“Treuer initially set out to locate the large placard that marked the plot — and failed.

“It’s a huge sign, bright yellow lettering. We should have been able to see it,” Treuer says. After wandering around for half an hour with no luck, he consulted Janzen, who gave him more detailed instructions on how to find the plot.

When he returned a week later and confirmed he was in the right place, Treuer was floored. Compared to the adjacent barren former pastureland, the site of the food waste deposit was “like night and day.”

“It was just hard to believe that the only difference between the two areas was a bunch of orange peels. They look like completely different ecosystems,” he explains.

The area was so thick with vegetation he still could not find the sign.
Treuer and a team of researchers from Princeton University studied the site over the course of the following three years.

The results, published in the journal “Restoration Ecology,” highlight just how completely the discarded fruit parts assisted the area’s turnaround.

The ecologists measured various qualities of the site against an area of former pastureland immediately across the access road used to dump the orange peels two decades prior. Compared to the adjacent plot, which was dominated by a single species of tree, the site of the orange peel deposit featured two dozen species of vegetation, most thriving.”

I’ve seen massive changes in an area after dropping lots of tree mulch. Struggling trees suddenly found their stride. Wildflowers and mushrooms appeared. Sweet potatoes exploded in productivity.

Feed the soil and the soil takes care of your plants. That’s why I argue in Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting that making lists of rules of things you “shouldn’t compost” and chucking good stuff like bones, wood, etc., is foolish.

Compost_960Nature breaks down organic material wonderfully. She’s a well-designed machine. Work with instead of against her and good things will come your way.

If something as simple as orange peels can restore lousy land, imagine what would happen if you added in a wide range of compostable material!

David-the-good-books-revised

Cooked Food in the Compost is Bad?

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D wasn’t happy with the free composting guide I give away to newsletter subscribers:

“You say I your compost guide to use cooked food!!! Isn’t that just asking for rats and maggots to come in invade giving them a invitation! Also I didn’t know you were in the USA lots of the things your talking about mean nothing to me so sorry I’m deleting your guide.”

You can’t win them all, but really – this is just silly.

Why would you NOT use cooked food in your compost? Do you think rats are particularly attracted to cooked vs. non-cooked food? No, rats love just about anything you throw their way, as do maggots.

Soldier fly larvae are maggots and they are great composters!

And rats? Come on. Bury things deeply, as I do in my “melon pits:”

Other gardeners are picking up the melon pit idea as well:

That’s an easy way to add cooked food to your compost if you’re really afraid of rats and other vermin.

Or you can just compost in a closed bin.

I mean really… why throw potential soil fertility away? Compost everything!

Or just go ahead and delete my booklet. Not everyone is ready for extreme composting.

Or basic composting, as the case may be.

David-the-good-books-revised

Making Another Batch of Dave’s Fetid Swamp Water(TM)

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As shared in my book Compost Everything, this method of feeding plants allows you to stretch fertility a long, long way and re-use “waste:”

Many people have written in to say how much they appreciate this simple method for creating liquid plant fertilizer.

As Gardener Earth Guy commented on the video:

“This is the absolute best garden trick I’ve learned in a long time. My banana have gotten giant, sweet potato have rope vines, and loquats are getting giant. What doesn’t get a chop n drop goes in the bin.”

You can throw in weeds, fruit, kitchen scraps, urine, manure… just find organic matter and throw it in. I like a wide mix. This is a pretty simple batch, only containing moringa, compost, cow manure and urine. I did get some Epsom Salts after making the video and will throw that in next. A 55-gallon drum like this can easily feed 10,000 square feet of corn for a growing season. I know – I’ve done it!

It beats making “normal” compost and having to spread it all around.

David-the-good-books-revised

Urine is a Great Fertilizer… EXCEPT FOR DRUGS!!!

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Seriously, is EVERYONE on drugs these days?

I mean, I’ve been known to drink coffee all day and sometimes chain-smoke my pipe while writing, then have a cocktail before bed… but pharmaceuticals? Not for me! CLEAN LIVING, man!

For years I’ve advocated the use of urine as a fertilizer. It’s truly an excellent plant booster and a free source of garden fertility. I believe God designed it that way on purpose.

Go ahead, water your plants!

Yet the question always comes up – “what if a person is on drugs?”

As Sheila wrote earlier this week:

Something to remember for your viewers. If they are on any
medications they may want to forgo the pee until they are off the
drugs. It all comes out through the kidneys.

Yeah, well… PeeWee Herman had something to say about that:

Don’t do drugs!

Actually, on second thought, maybe most of the “drugs” questions aren’t really about crack.

Some pharmaceuticals aren’t a lot better, though.

Anyhow, let’s think this through.

Drugs in Urine – Bad for the Garden?

Well, that’s a tough one.

Your plants are likely to be unaffected by the drugs that pass through your urine. I don’t like the idea of adding pharmaceuticals to the garden, but in my completely unscientific opinion, I would say it’s pretty unlikely that beta blockers, for instance, are going to mess up your beets.

Or Oxycontin render your carrots too sleepy to make roots.

Or heroin cause your tomatoes to start playing grunge music, then die at age 27 in a filthy hotel room.

Oh, sorry – I guess heroin is no longer a “legit” pharmaceutical. That was a few years back.

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Anyhow, yeah… the drugs are targeted at human physiology, which is quite different from that of plants.

Yet it gets worse… drugs are polluting our water supply. One of the worst is “the pill:

“After the active ingredient in most birth control pills has done its duty preventing pregnancy, it begins a second life as a pollutant that can harm wildlife in waterways.

Not only is ethinyl estradiol quite potent — creating “intersex” fish and amphibians — but it is very difficult to remove from wastewater, which carries it into natural waterways. 

Since women around the planet take the pill, this is a global problem. The European Union is the first entity to seriously consider mandating the removal of ethinyl estradiol, also known as EE2, from wastewater. However, as researchers pointed out in Thursday’s (May 24) issue of the journal Nature, the question of whether to remove the pollutant is not simple.”

Personally, I think banning the pill is a great idea, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Personal Use

The question of using urine as fertilizer when drugs are in play is a personal one. I think it’s blown out of proportion.

Are you using urine as fertilizer, then feeding the produce to other people? Well, that’s NASTY!

Seriously, though – if it’s your own garden and you’re already taking these toxic substances medications for various reasons, I don’t think the little bit you might get back in your salad is a big deal. I wouldn’t want to take any pharmaceuticals if at all possible and wouldn’t want to eat produce contaminated with them, but if I were already on, say, meth proprotein convertase subtilisin kexin type 9 inhibitors, I wouldn’t worry about a tiny bit of it coming back to me via the garden.

My two cents.

You’ll find a lot more on the use of urine as fertilizer in my book Compost Everything.

David-the-good-books-revised

Composting Success in Washington

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Imagine gardening here:

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Stunning!

That’s a picture from Sheila in Washington.

She writes:

“I just wanted to touch bases with you about composting. The weeds in a bucket then add water. Works so well! The tea is wonderful. All my
plants are greening up and say thank you! I have many little buckets
of this to water and feed my plants weekly. Still doing the pee as
well. Something to remember for your viewers. If they are on any
medications they may want to forgo the pee until they are off the
drugs. It all comes out through the kidneys. But it is working so well
for me. Now to get the home owners to OK my having a chicken. Yes I live in a neighborhood with restrictions. They just don’t know what they are missing. Maybe they do. Not sure. But I have neighbors that are OK
with them but the other neighbors are not on board yet!

So thank you for the information about composting. It works! No money
to buy fertilizer! I love it!

Sheila

(P.S.) This is my side kick.

gardening-help

We do everything in the garden together. He is like a three year old that does not talk. Keeps the birds away from eating my garden plants too! If it isn’t birds its bugs! Happy gardening.”

 

Beautiful view, beautiful dog, beautiful echinacea… and composting success!

Hard to beat.

The method of composting she’s discussing is my favorite “fetid swamp water” anaerobic barrel method of turning weeds, urine, manure and various “wastes” into liquid fertilizer for the garden.

It works like a charm.

You can learn more about it and many other composting methods in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

As Bill Cantrell writes in a recent review:

Very fun, easy read with a lot of humor, interesting stories and knowledgeable insights. People often over-complicate things but David The Good does a great job simplifying and explaining the process and benefits of composting. Growing up in the suburbs without a garden, I always thought of grass clippings, leaves and branches as waste. I think differently now!

Potential soil fertility is everywhere – don’t let it pass you by.

I’ll address the “problem” of drugs in urine in a future post. That issue crops up a lot.

David-the-good-books-revised

Brazilian Pepper Composting and Mulch: Good or Bad?

brazilian pepper composting

Brazilian pepper composting or use as mulch? Good idea or bad idea?

I have spoken in the past of Brazilian pepper’s usefulness as a “chop and drop” species to cut over and over again and toss as a rough mulch around fruit trees and other perennials.

If it’s going to be a pain-in-the-neck invasive that’s almost impossible to kill… use it to feed the trees you actually want!

Put that regrowth to work and turn it into humus!

Yet… there may be a dark side to Brazilian pepper trees. It’s well-known that they’re toxic, yet they may also be allelopathic.

As Ronald Allan commented on one of my recent videos:

“You mention using (Brazilian Pepper) in chop and drop, but I’ve heard conflicting reports that it can have negative effects on other plants growing. have you had any problems with it?”

No, I haven’t… but there is a rabbit hole worth following here.

So – what’s the deal with using Brazilian pepper in compost and mulch? Good idea or bad idea?

Brazilian Pepper Composting

When I was a kid, we had a Brazilian pepper tree show up behind my dad’s shed. Dad cut it back multiple times but it kept coming back. I was impressed by the tree’s tenacity.

Finally, Dad cut it to the ground again and poured gasoline over the entire area.

That finally killed it – yet I never forgot how fast they grow and how good they are at coming back from the ground.

Sometimes problems can be turned into opportunities.

If a tree really wants to grow and if you always need more fodder for the compost pile, why not keep cutting and composting the invasives?

I’ve done this with weeds and grasses, mimosa trees and Brazilian peppers. Chop them into chunks and throw them around other trees to feed the ground.

But This Doesn’t Look Good

That said, there are reports that Brazilian pepper can suppress the growth of other plants. Cindy McNatt writes in The Orange County Register:

“I have to admit that I’m often on information overload. Ideas, plans and promises whiz by so fast that I can only reach out and grab a fraction of what’s coming my way.

And then there was this: an email from Jerri Arriola asking about compost and his Brazilian pepper tree. It caught my eye because I also make speedy compost with these tiny brittle leaves that shower down in wheelbarrowfuls on a quarter of my backyard.

The zinger? He added that Brazilian pepper tree leaves are allelopathic and asked if they were OK.

Time stood still for a moment while I thought about this. You see, “allelopathic” means that this plant suppresses the growth of other plants by exuding oils and other toxic compounds that eliminate competition.

It explains why hardly anything grows under the canopy of these trees – perfect for an area of my driveway where digging weeds would be a drag. Two pepper trees there do the trick to keep it weed-free, although I always thought their deep shade had something to do with it.

As for the large pepper tree in my backyard, I’ll have to say that only the sturdiest plants grow nearby: rhaphiolepis, pittosporum and ivy.

This breakthrough information also explains why I’ve had the worst vegetable garden the past 10 years. Not only is the tree just 10 to 15 feet away, I’ve been composting the leaves like crazy and adding them to my raised beds!”

Uh-oh!

But is Brazilian Pepper Allelopathic?

There’s the question.

I have chopped Brazilian pepper trees up and tossed them into The Great South Florida Food Forest Project without seeing any issues.

That said, the allelopathic effect could have been buffered by the rest of the brush I threw in at the same time. We piled up palm fronds, schefflera leaves, grass clippings and all kinds of things together.

I didn’t notice any problems with the fruit trees after doing so.

However there may be a risk!

According to the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce:

Allelopathy (chemical inhibition of potential competing species) has long been suspected in S. terebinthifolius, based on the well-documented ability of the leaves, flowers, and fruits to produce or accumulate chemical irritants (Gogue et al. 1974, Morton 1978, Ewel et al. 1982). Morgan and Overholt (2005) demonstrated that aqueous extracts from the leaves of Brazilian peppers could suppress germination and growth of some native Florida plant species under laboratory conditions. Field evidence confirming allalopathy and quantifying its contribution to the competitive success of S. terebinthifolius remain lacking.”

It’s not proven, but there are suspicions.

Brazilian pepper mulch is common in Florida as the trees are regularly shredded as people try to claim back sections of woods from this incredibly invasive species. Even if the mulch isn’t pure Brazilian pepper, if you get tree company mulch in South Florida, the chances are that it will have some Brazilian pepper in it.

Final Thoughts on Composting Brazilian Pepper

Personally, I hate to throw out anything that could be potentially composted.

With the possibility of Brazilian pepper mulch or compost being bad for the garden, well, why not just throw it aside to rot down first? Often allelopathic substances will break down in composting.

Fresher compost is more likely to cause trouble, as will higher concentrations.

Diluting the Danger

Though not performed with Brazilian pepper compost, one test performed at University of California with allelopathic plants reported:

“On the basis of these experiments, it appears that there may be an allelopathic effect on some seedlings when grown in undiluted eucalyptus, black walnut or live oak composts. With increased dilutions, the effects become less severe, suggesting that under natural conditions- where the dilution factor would be far greater than 25 percent-there would be little or no damage from these leaves and that possibly other factors might be the reason for growth failure under these trees.”

My Verdict on Brazilian Pepper Composting

The two factors that are your friends: time and dilution.

I would still use Brazilian pepper as a chop-and-drop tree and compost addition, as well as a mulch, but I might be wary of using it in large quantities.

Nature has a way of breaking down toxins and recycling almost everything into a form plants can use. Brazilian pepper composting is still on the table for me.

As I wrote in my popular book… compost everything!

 

*Image at top via Everglades NPS. Creative commons license.

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