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Amazing results with compost / soil-building experiment  RSS feed

 
Troy Martz
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Disclaimer 1: I have yet to try my latest batch of compost, as my Spring planting is still 3 weeks away (high desert, CA).
Disclaimer 2: I am only 2 years into transforming a patch of sandy desert into a lush food forest... I am expediting soil building (details below)

Ok, so the end goal is to evolve into a Jeff Lawton type system, with chop and drop, self-mulching, etc., etc.... I'm not there yet, so I am expediting the process. Here is what I've done...

For the past year, I've been fortunate to convince tree trimming companies to dump their wood chips on my sandy, barren soil. Wood chips is a bit of a misnomer, as it includes the leaves, needles, and a good portion of "green" in the mix. However, it's still predominantly carbon heavy. Todate, we've probably had 200 cubic yards of the stuff (awesome). My two prerequisites are that the loads don't include any aleopathic material (primarily eucalyptus and pepper cuttings... a small amount of this is acceptable), and that these trees weren't given fossil-based fertilizer, or weren't in the vicinity of any Round-Up, etc., etc.

Fortunately, I have a good relationship with one of the drivers, and nearly all of these loads came from rural areas, and the property owners have indicated to him that these are mostly trees left to nature's device. Could there be some residue? Perhaps, but I'm going on their word. Additionally, after a conversation with Jeff Lawton, he told me that nature has a way of rendering the bad chemicals inert, provided that we're dealing in small quantities...

Now, what in the heck do I do with all this high-carbon organic matter!!? I help it along, that's what... Here is an example of one scenario:

1. I filled a 100 x 80 foot bathtub-like basin with almost 2 feet of this stuff
2. I waited for 3 days of rain to get moisture down to the original ground level
3. I brought in 40 cubic yards of spent mushroom compost (very low salt variety)
4. I spread the mushroom compost across the whole field (about 4-5 inches thick)
5. I spread 3 55lb bags of volcanic rock dust and other minerals over the field
6. I spread a few hundred gallons of a special diluted mix of:
- 3 gallons of seaweed extract
- 2 gallons of black strap molasses
- 1 gallon of humic acid
- mycelium spores
- 10 gallons of actively aerated worm tea
- 3 5-gallon buckets of biochar that I've saved from my pyrolosis runs (very low ash)
7. I spread 4 wheel barrels full of dried chicken manure (my chickens, all organically fed)
8. I used a rototiller to mix the ingredients all together... The tines never came close to the original sandy base

I ended up with a homogenized mix of yummy goodness... I waited 2 days before I came back for my final treatment. I then thoroughly drenched the soil with my hose (well water) and used my feet to compact the loose mix. When not compressed, your foot would sink into the chips about 5 inches (too loose). The drenching and compacting cycle took 5 days, as my well water level and pressure needed to recover after about an hour of straight drenching. When fully saturated and compressed, the ground feels like you are walking on a stiff mattress... Exactly what I was after. Also, because of the nature of this mix, I know there are vast amounts of air pockets for oxygen to move freely. I just didn't want it to be too loose, primarily to retain some water-wicking characteristics.

The mushroom compost comes from a facility here in San Diego that has an extremely low salinity level. It's pH neutral, and able to hold vast amounts of water -- the exact opposite to the wood chips. My hypothesis is that by mixing a water-holding substance in with the wood chips, the breakdown process would happen much faster. I am stunned with the results. It's only been 2 weeks, and I've been peeking "under the hood." I am amazed...

The wood chips are not just damp, they're fully saturated with water, and are already showing signs of breaking down. There is mycelium everywhere (to be expected). It already has a rich, earthy smell. It's been dry and hot here for the last 10 days or so, and only the top 2 inches are dry -- the rest is still very damp and humid.

Initially, I thought I would just wait a year for this mix to marinate well, but after inspection, I think I'm going to plant some nitrogen-rich, soil-building plants from Peaceful Valley... At the end of this growing season, I'll start my first chop-n-drop after I harvest the peas. From this point on, I'll shift into a more "permaculture purist" methodology...

I'm left with 2 feet of fantastic soil now on a large plot -- enough to feed my family about half of our caloric needs for the year. Can't wait until next year when I plant food crops. By then, my soil should look much more like nature intended with the one year of the soil food web doing their thing.

How much did I pay for all this? Not much... wood chips were free. mushroom compost was free (had to pay the driver $300). The various other mixes ran me about $600. So 100 x 80 foot field, 2 feet deep ran me about $900 and a few weeks of hard labor... I'm more than pleased.

I'd be interested in hearing any feedback from other permies.

Thanks!











 
Troy Martz
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Correction... after looking into potential calories/acre, my estimate was way off... Instead of this plot producing half of my families caloric needs, I now believe it will producee about 1/5th... A little disappointing, but the formula seems to be legitimate...

Damn... I have to do this 4 more times... Whew...
 
Martin Vandepas
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Location: Portland, Oregon, USA
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Really cool! Did you take any pictures? Trying to meet all your caloric needs is a lofty goal. All your vegetable needs would take significantly less land and be a good starting point. Just a thought.
 
Troy Martz
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Martin,

It's definitely a lofty goal... I'm on 6 acres, but most of it is still sandy desert. I'm still a few years from even coming close to caloric needs for the family. And yes, we are big on micro-greens and veggies -- for us as well as the chickens, quail, and rabbits.

We're not vegan or vegetarians either. We're trying to decide on which animal protein source is best for us (lowest feed to protein ratio is a big factor). Our chickens are dual-purpose, but we only collect eggs right now. After hearing a pretty cool podcast, I'm seriously considering raising quail on a larger scale. Right now I just have 3... Rabbits and pigs are also very appealing (for different reasons).

Long story short... It's a lofty goal, but it's also a bit of a self-imposed challenge to see how close I can get.

I'll post some pics here soon. Thanks!
 
Renate Howard
pollinator
Posts: 755
Location: zone 6b
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I think it's really cool what you're doing! I hope it works well for you. I'd worry about the heat from the sun turning it too hot and the steam killing tender seedlings, but if you live there I guess you know which varieties to choose.

My pigs are in a 32 foot square pen for winter while the grass is dormant. During the winter they've managed to work 10 bales of straw into it and would have spread/sunk even more if I hadn't run out. It's really impressing me with the whole "deep bedding" thing - just the way you can use animals to improve soil without the need for lots of labor and heavy machinery (fueled by fossil fuels!). I'm not looking at the cost of the bales as loss, but as soil improvement - and at $4.50 per bale I've only spent $45 so far on the humus; more on feed but the pigs are turning it into fertilizer. Probably $150 on feed for them plus I give them spare eggs. The feed is primarily soaked oats with kitchen scraps but I added in some pig/sow chow for the last few months due to my sow losing condition nursing her piglets. I spent another $90 on two shelters (but they only use one of them!) and the panels were $20 each, including the T-posts and wires to attach them - 8 total so that was $160. I haven't moved them off to see how fertile the soil is yet, but if I were in the desert this may be an option (they'd need a way to be kept cool there, tho). Total cost: $445 but I get pork to feed the family and piglets to sell to recoup my investment. And the panels would be nice to fence off a garden anyway to keep out wildlife. I have 2 sows, a boar, and 4 piglets (the other sow is pregnant, due when the grass comes in).
 
Troy Martz
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Renate,

I was worried about 2 feet of wood chips turning into a large, flat compost pile too... I have been checking the temperature (just by touching it), and it's luke warm, all the way down... whew... If this plot heated up, I would have waited until planting anything. I have a few compost heaps that are 3-4 foot tall (with the same ingredients as my plot), and they are HOT. So I guess the "must be at least 3 feet tall" rule in hot composting is revealing its magic.

I love what you're doing with the pigs... Letting them pulverize and poop in the straw. It's probably close to an ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio I would imagine. What are you going to do with the stuff? Plant right in it in the Spring, or move and spread it on the garden?

Troy
 
Renate Howard
pollinator
Posts: 755
Location: zone 6b
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In my head I've divided it into squares - one I've already fenced the pigs out and planted comfrey in - it's supposed to like to grow in manure-rich soil. I've got a farmer friend who will deliver a round bale of 2 year old rotting hay once the pigs go to pasture and I'll spread that on top to be mulch and plant potatoes in half (right on the ground with a thick layer of rotting hay on top) and corn and pumpkins in the other half - they're both heavy feeders that grow well in rotting straw. I've heard of people getting huge crops from winter squash/pumpkins planted just in old bales of straw. The following year I'll put annuals in that can grow under fruit trees - there are trees in there too but they have a fungus - the original idea was to have the pigs kill the grass so I can see if the trees are salvageable with mulch, manure, and no grass competition. They're very small like maybe 5 years in the ground or less. I'm thinking herbs around the border, strawberries under one tree, and where we have to remove a dead tree probably cane fruits, with the crowded daffodils and tulips in there to take up space too.

I have pot belly pigs so they really only tear up the top few inches.
 
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