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Podcast 015 - Helen Atthowe on Compost, Veganic Permaculture, Native Plants

Adrien Lapointe
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Location: Kingston, Canada (USDA zone 5a)
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Credit: Lorenzo Costa

In this podcast, Paul speaks with Helen Atthowe, and they speak about compost, vegan permaculture,
and native plants.

Paul recalls the first time he saw Helen’s compost piles 15 years ago. Paul underlines the difference between industrial composting facilities that just serve as getting rid of the industrial waste, and with Helen's piles of compost where the important thing is the ingredients. Helen had a laboratory to study what was going in her piles. Paul discusses the importance of innovation and how Helen used a lot of compost pushing the limits to understand how much compost one should use.

Helen explains how her interest in composting started twenty years ago and how it has evolved over the years. She talks about the difference we can get using compost in the field, and in containers with plants that have to be transplanted. Paul and Helen agree on the fact that when we do our compost at home we really can’t go wrong. Helen highlights the most important concept for a quality compost: good balance of carbon to nitrogen. One has to have a diversity of compost materials and have a good balance of high carbon materials and high nitrogen material. They help understand well what material is brown and dry and high in carbon; green, succulent, like green clippings, are high in nitrogen. Poop is brown but high in nitrogen, every animal residue is high in nitrogen.

The ratio is 30:1; 30 carbon’s to 1 nitrogen, but one actually doesn’t have to worry about that, if it’s not breaking down we just add nitrogen, and then if it stinking we add some carbon rich ingredient. The best rule of thumb is just to mix 50:50 green and brown, and then make sure you put 50:50 course and fine material, that helps having space in between our ingredients so when we make a pile we have oxygen.

Compost tea is the next thing they discuss.They realize how awesome it is, but one has to see when it is of value and when not. Compost tea is great when you have to build soil fertility, but after you don’t have to work so hard. Compost tea actually is time consuming and costs a lot of money in the long run but is awesome as a kickstarter for soil fertility.

They talk about how we have to be careful with compost because every time you add it to our soil we add a variety of nutrients, but especially N,P,K: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. One has to be careful to their concentration that changes the ph of one’s soil. They say how wee need to look for balance and they discuss how we can actually see the balance or in-balance in our crops.They discuss hot composting and how one has to be careful about too high pile temperature. Once the soil fertility is built, Helen says that it is useful to continue to add compost, her experience is just take the scraps, and the greens, all the cuttings and let them decompose on the fields, or in the gardens and we will just mimic the natural process having great results.

They move into discussing home composting versus commercial composting. Paul discusses that the crappiest home compost is always far superior then commercial compost. There may be 1 percent of good compost, but the majority is wood chips, and industrial waste, and the risk of herbicides that get into our commercial compost.They end speaking about composting by discussing ruth stout and the benefits of alfalfa, that has the perfect ratio of carbon an nitrogen.

The next thing they discuss is veganism and vegan permaculture. Paul asks Helen to explain the difference between veganism and vegetarianism. They discuss how though sometimes vegans eat crappy food but eliminating meat, animal products or created by other living creatures, like honey. One should actually be very serious on what goes in their vegan diet.

They discuss Pollan’s work in the Ominvore’s dilemma, as a basis to start uncovering the vegan diet from a grocery store, and how sometimes we eat food we think is good but that is actually produced in a wrong way. So we have to think about if we want the good for us or the good for all, and for all speaking of the ecosystem, the soil, nature. Helen recalls that there is actually a veganic label in Canada, the US and even in Europe. A Label that actually guarantees the way the food, or the ingredients are produced. Paul presents Helen’s site, veganicpermaculture.com and she explains how she transitioned in her lifetime from meat eating, to vegetarianism and then veganism. This is why she started to use a veganic agriculture. Paul and Helen discuss the difference there is in organic agriculture today and twenty years ago. Organic is a wonderful approach because it lies on awareness but veganic for Helen means a deeper awareness. She outlines what she means with veganic permaculture and how for her this is a polyculture, permanent cover based agriculture.

In the last part of the podcast they discuss native plants and how the discussion in permaculture is high. Helen and Paul discuss how the whole thing is probably useless if we end up having wild places and then heavily cultivated places. The connection between these two so different ecosystems should be growing more forest gardens that mix and create a balance. Every ecosystem that is sustainable has a biological diversity and complexity and non-native, sometimes invasive species, would not be able to create great problems. What happens though is that we have non-native plants that become invasive because we disrupt in many ways the complexity of the ecosystems. Paul recall’s Toby Hemenway’s discussion on this theme in Gaia’s garden, and how we should see how useless the point is if we ask ourselves: native to when?

Relevant Links

Drunken Composting
Native Plants
Permaculture Without Livestock

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