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My idea for no till sheet composting of food waste in orchard -- what do you think?

 
carl gibson
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Location: Ithaca NY
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I have a food scraps collection business, and currently bring in about 45 gallons of food scraps a week. Hopefully someday soon I will be bringing in a lot more. I have a young orchard of about three acres. Site is very mild slope, hill top, old hayfield, climate zone 5, Upstate New York. I need to make the best possible use of the food scraps in a cheap low tech way that does not require much time, because I have very little extra time available. So the idea that I have come up with is to spread the food scraps in very thin (maybe 1" thick) layers around and between the trees. Then cover with an equally thin layer of leaves, wood chips, or moldy hay. If I start at one end of the orchard, then by the time I get to the other end, hopefully the place where I started the compost will have naturally incorporated into the soil, and I can begin the cycle over again.

In all of my research on sheet composting, the process seems to be that you spread your compostables over the field, and then incorporate them into the soil via mechanical means. Ie. either a rototiller or plow and harrow. I do not have the time or equipment to do this, nor the inclination. My hope is that by keeping my layers thin, two things will be accomplished: fungi, bacteria, worms, etc will be able to incorporate the material into the soil relatively quickly, and the growth of grasses and wildflowers will not be much impeded.

A few other details: I do try to control the weeds near the trees, but they are on standard root stocks, and I am not concerned about weeds that are a couple of feet out from the trunks. I am not concerned about attracting coyotes, raccoons, skunks, etc. Hopefully these scavenger predators will eat some of the small rodents.

Has anyone done something similar to this before, and does anyone have any critiques or suggestions? the long term goal for this orchard is sort of a permaculture zone 3/4 forest garden.
 
William Bronson
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Since you are not concerned about drawing pests, the only thing I can offer is the idea that guinea,chooks,or swine might offer faster nutrient cycling,plus an added benefit of eggs or meat.
This may not be worthless trouble or time,but any of these animals can be largely self sufficient.
 
carl gibson
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Location: Ithaca NY
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Thank you, William Bronson for taking the time to offer advice. Ever since reading Fukuoka's books, where he talks about his semi-feral chickens, I have thought that I would like to try the idea around here. And I have heard about all of these people feeding their chickens compost, although I have not yet heard of anyone feeding guinea fowl on compost. But for now, I have no reliable water supply and no animal shelter in the orchard, so for the time being I will have to see how well I can cycle these nutrients without the help of livestock.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Hi Carl;

I think your plan sounds great. There are those that like to till, and those that don't - it's a matter of choice, and sometimes necessity. We don't till, we just pile up the organic material and plant into it. Doing this for an orchard will be even easier - especially since the orchard is already planted. Like you said, all of the soil denizens will incorporate the organic material into the soil, so I don't think you need to worry about tillage. I think you should go ahead with your plan of putting down layers of green and woody material. You could even maybe fling out some seeds for a ground cover crop that will add more nitrogen and bulk organic material, and shade out some of the weeds. Something that will take care of itself, like a clover and buckwheat mix. There are lots of cover crop mixes that would work.

Just my two cents. And welcome to Permies!

Cheers
Tracy
 
Roberto pokachinni
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here's a link to a permies thread that might have some relevant information:  quanties of veg for composting  I think that your plan should do just fine.
 
carl gibson
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Location: Ithaca NY
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Thank you Tracy for your encouragement and suggestions, and for the warm welcome. Thank you Roberto for the link to that other thread. I read it and it was useful. Hopefully after I have been doing this method for a year or so I will report back with some results.
 
Marco Banks
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I'd be curious what kind of food scraps are you talking about?  Will there be meat, dairy and fat scraps?  These do not break down as readily as veggie scraps, and WILL make your orchard a rat magnet.  If it's all veggie scraps, then just do what you've planned to do --- all carbon is good.  Mulch like there is no tomorrow.  Or rather, mulch FOR tomorrow -- your soil will thank you.  But if there are meat scraps, you'll attract so much vermin to your lot, you will regret it.

Composting does take effort but it's well worth the effort it takes to make.  The benefits of compost are numerous, but most significant is the microbial community you will foster and spread onto your land as you spread the finished compost.  Yes, there are some nutrients in finished compost, but the microbes are the stars of the show.  All those beneficial bacteria will work with your trees and plants to bring tremendous health and fertility to your soil. 

If you don't see yourself turning all that compost, then consider black soldier fly bins and chickens to eat them.  You can feed the scraps directly to the chickens, but BSF are high in fat and protean and are a value-added means of turning free food scraps into free high quality chicken feed.  Google Black Soldier Fly bins --- there are a million sites and videos out there.

Or get a pig.  That would be the easiest way of disposing of the food scraps.  Pigs are omnivores and are not picky about what is thrown in the slop bucket.

With both chickens or pigs, you get multiple benefits.  Obviously, you get the calories from the eggs, the chicken itself, or the pork (once butchered).  Additionally, their manure and urine will jumpstart the fertility of your soil.  If you can give them the run of your orchard and protect the trees from any damage they might do (hogs like to root), they will crap all over and help build soil.  Integrating animals into your food forest is critically important for long-term fertility. 

Best of luck.
 
carl gibson
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Location: Ithaca NY
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Thank you Marco for all the excellent pointers. The food scraps are almost entirely vegetable scraps from individual households. There is very very little in the way of meat and dairy, even though I am willing to take just about anything, because I would rather put it to some use than have it fester in a landfill. If I do eventually end up with some clients who are tossing out a lot of meat and dairy, I will certainly pursue the black soldier fly larvae production that you suggested. In regards to your advice about finished compost, I have three questions:

1: What is the best way to spread finished compost into the orchard so that the microbial community is not lost, but is transferred into the orchard soil?
2: Do you think that adding finished compost to the orchard in addition to the no till sheet composting will foster a stronger microbial community than simply no till sheet composting by itself?
3: As  I am a very inexperienced composter, what is the best way to go about learning how to make top quality microbial rich compost? Any books or resources that you recommend?

Oh and thanks for the exhortation to mulch for tomorrow -- will do.

Carl
 
Gilbert Fritz
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I just thought I'd point out that mulch of any sort should be kept well back from the trunks of trees, and that is especially true if the mulch is likely to be a mouse magnet.

Also, in the long run if you keep importing organic materials to a given property you could end up with an imbalance in the soil, but that is a given with any system.
 
Marco Banks
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carl gibson wrote:

1: What is the best way to spread finished compost into the orchard so that the microbial community is not lost, but is transferred into the orchard soil?
2: Do you think that adding finished compost to the orchard in addition to the no till sheet composting will foster a stronger microbial community than simply no till sheet composting by itself?
3: As  I am a very inexperienced composter, what is the best way to go about learning how to make top quality microbial rich compost? Any books or resources that you recommend?


1.  Microbes are sensitive to moisture and sunlight.  UV rays are murder on soil life, which is why its always good to keep living plants growing to shade the soil as well as pump exudates into the soil profile that attract the best microbes and feed the microbial herd.  If your compost totally dries out, it will also kill many of the microbes.  So ... low exposure to direct sunlight and adequate moisture ... if you can spread compost in a light rain, that would be optimal.  But any time is a good time to spread compost. 

2.  Absolutely.  The more biomass that you can put down on the soil, the more "home" you create for the microbes and fungi.  Adding compost will jumpstart the microbial life in your sheet compost.  Both is better than just one.  If you could add animal impact as well (chickens, a steer, even human urine) it would add a third layer of goodness.

3.  I'm a lazy composter, so others can address this with more authority.  I only turn my compost once a month, if that.  It all eventually rots.  Pile it up, keep it moist, turn it for O2, and it will decompose.
 
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