For those of you who need to see my garden to believe it first, go here to see my garden grow:
I have had the ugly compost bins made from wooden pallets, the worm bins, the big mounds and piles in the back yard, the huge round hog wire bins and so on.. I've turned with pitchforks, concerned myself about heat, moisture and all the elements of cooking perfect compost and here is my personal and honest assessment of it all.. Compost bins aren't pretty and the textbook cooking compost method takes too much work, too much time and leaves me with too little product to ever make it worth my while..
After reading Lasagna gardening and seeing how the most perfect compost in nature is made by slow and gradual decomposition of leaves underneath a canopy of trees, my philosophy has shifted to a "feed the soil, not your compost bin" mentality. I compost in place and let the gradual decay of organic matter feed the teaming microorganisms and worms. The heat created in a compost pile is energy transferred and lost to breaking down the organic matter to it's smallest form, instead of letting that energy transfer gradually and more usefully in your soil.
I'd much rather let nature do the work and I get all the rewards for it. All of the organic material that would have been added to a compost bin is now composted in place. Simple, easy, wonderful for the soil, great food for the beneficial organisms and your worms, easy on your back, less work, no worries about heating and right moisture contents. Compost happens whether you work real hard and baby your pile or lay it down on the soil and walk away. It happens better if you walk away, get out of the way and let nature do it's job all by itself.
For those who still don't want to believe... fine.. you keep that pile turned and fed while I go tend to my garden
This article is wonderful and perfectly describes my composting philosophy:
Compost in Place with No-Till Gardening
Written by Jane Sickon
Photography by Jim Kennedy
Many of us who garden are quite familiar with the concept of raised bed gardening - particularly those of us who have dirt that glows red with clay. We're also extremely familiar with composting - we have compost piles or bins hidden out of sight, full of leaves, grass clippings and the vegetable scraps from our kitchens. We wait, if somewhat impatiently, for that stuff to turn into the "black gold" we then spread on our gardens and cover with shredded bark or other mulch we must truck in to our gardens.
But there is another way. This way puts to an end the annual process of tilling our garden plots! What's this you say? No more wrestling with that bucking machine or breaking our backs as we till our plots with hand tools? How can this be?
It's developer, Ruth Stout (1884-1980) called it "no dig, no work" although even exponents of her methods, like Pat Ruggiero and Howard Markham of Fluvanna, admit there is no gardening without work - this method just involves less backbreaking work than most. It's a method based on nature's own way, the "no-till" or "permanent mulch" method, and it's amazingly simply.
"Think about it," Pat challenges. "Think about how the leaves fall from the trees and land at their bases. Nobody comes to rake them up. They just stay there and decay - and they begin to feed the trees, those big, healthy trees. No one fertilizes them. No one cleans away the leaves and makes the forest floor neat and tidy but the trees flourish."
Pat and Howard both grew up in farming communities but had worked and lived most of their lives in Northern Virginia. They knew they wanted to retire to a place where they could garden and when they saw this seven acre property in Fluvanna, with its south facing slope, they knew this was it.
"We became very interested in no-till gardening shortly after we started gardening here," Pat explains. "We tilled the beds the first year, and again the second year, but no more - we just pull the mulch aside, plant, and pull the mulch back again." And, indeed, the mulch is never removed - it is simply added to and over-planted with cover crops in the off-season.
"Our favorite cover crops are bearded oats, field peas and hairy vetch," reveals Pat. "We broadcast the seeds, take the rake and tamp the mulch that is in place so the seeds to settle in, and let them grow." The oats and peas come up almost immediately and they grow and flourish until the frost kills them. The vetch grows a little but it's the oats and peas that take over the "resting" beds during the fall. When they die, Pat and Howard do not pull the cover crops up by their roots. The plants will simply fall over by themselves and there they will remain. In the early spring the vetch takes over and grows until the couple is ready to plant their food crops. Then the vetch is cut down to act as mulch and eventually it, too, composts in place.
Even when their vegetable crops are finished, the plant remains are composted in place. Pat says that when it comes to the corn stalks, Howard will use the chipper/shredder and grind the stalks down before returning them to the plot where the corn had grown. "You could just throw the whole stalks on the ground and they would eventually turn into compost but they're awkward to work around. It's easier just to break them up and give them a head start," she says
"No-till gardening is based on improving the soil," Pat explains. "We keep the soil covered with organic matter. Soil microorganisms (the "microherd" as they're affectionately known among some organic gardeners) feed on the organic matter, mixing it into the soil, and eventually the soil changes. That's how Nature tills the soil. Because vegetable plants have a high nutrient requirement, we also add our own finished compost at planting time. Depending on the vegetable, we might add 1/2" compost over the whole bed, or we might just add a shovelful in each planting spot."
Pat is a Master Gardener with the Virginia Extension Service's Master Gardening Program and notes that there's usually a new Master Gardening class starting every year in late January. She recommends it for anyone who wants to learn more about gardening. (Contact your local extension service for more details.)
"Soil is built from the top down," she continues. "Nature tills the soil that way and that's part of the philosophy of no-till gardening. We compost in place, perhaps adding a little more compost here and there, and the microorganisms in the soil, the microherd, feed on the compost, dragging some if it down with them, leaving behind their castings, and eventually the soil changes."
The soil in the vegetable beds has changed greatly in the seven years since they came to garden here. As Pat pulls away a small circle of matted hay and other decaying cover to show off some of her ready to harvest potatoes, she easily shoves her hand nearly wrist deep with little effort. The soil is beautiful, dark loam - the kind of soil that even Martha Stewart would envy.
"Two of the principles of no-till gardening are to make sure that there is always something for the microherd in the soil to eat," Pat explains as the teaching side of her comes out. "The plants don't access the hay and cover crops directly. The microherd does and it's their waste that the plants eat. No-till gardeners always make sure that there is something for those organisms to eat so that the plants will always have something to eat. The second principle is that the organic material that composts in place, eventually breaks down and changes the texture of the soil for the better, which makes it easier for the plant roots to develop and take in nourishment." It definitely appears that their gardening method is working well for their garden.
"We started planting from the very first year, of course," Pat says. "The crops were okay. We started with the hay (spoiled hay was a favorite mulch of Ruth Stout, the method's founder) and compost and cover crops. "But it was somewhere about the fourth year that the garden took on a new vigor - we just saw this really big change in the fourth year. This is the seventh year now and we think the garden has made another big advance this year."
The no-till gardening method has another benefit that the couple enjoys. According to Pat, it's only the northern most vegetable beds, those at the top of the hill, that must be watered every week or so. "The lower beds don't seem to need the extra water," she says. "The thatch of mulch holds in the moisture that the plants need and we don't need to water the lower beds very often. It's really a big benefit of the no-till philosophy."
The additional compost that is applied to the beds in early spring comes from their property. Leaving the leaves that fall beneath the trees on the property to feed the trees from which they come, Howard takes the leaves that blow onto the grassy areas of lawn, along with grass clippings and chipped branches that have fallen or are groomed from the surrounding bushes and trees and he composts them behind the couple's berry bushes on the northwest side of their property. The compost is used solely in the vegetable garden and not on any of the many beautiful perennial beds that surround the property. "We use the no-till method with them, too," Pat states, "but they have to rough it on their own, compared to the vegetable beds."
If the condition of Pat's and Howard's perennial beds is based on roughing it, then their vegetable beds are nothing short of a five-star restaurant for plants and there's not a tiller, man or machine, in sight.
My easier, better soil, no fuss, less work, composting
For those of you who need to see my garden to believe it first, go here to see my garden grow:
Wonderful posting! Thanks for taking the time to send this message to all of us.
Thanks for sharing w/ us. I am very intrested in the no till garden concept. I live in on a suburban lot that was bull dozed and the soil was packed down before we moved in. I've been working on pulling rocks out and loosing the soil to no avail (heavy clay soil w/ gravel). Often times, if I want to start a new bed I have to dig out subsoil that was brought to the top during construction. There have been a couple of times here I just threw it in the trash. I know this is wastefull and back breaking work, but I want my plants to flourish.
I hope that my compost piles and bags of leaves will help loosen the soil.
Very interesting, and very timely! Today we have a bit of sunshine, and it's not too cold. I was thinking about getting out a rake and cleaning up (finally) last year's bed (just established last spring). It's full of fallen leaves and stalks from the annuals and perennials. But then I question, what about the invasion of pests and rot? Wouldn't it tend to encourage some of those unwanted things? Or maybe I'm not understanding the concept correctly..... I think I'll go grab my galoshes and head outside to take a peek at winter's impact on the garden!
Judy, Thanks I really hope this can be helpful.. It's really a good idea to learn from those who have learned from doing and have figured out a better way.. I know there are some die hard bin composters here and if you enjoy doing it fine, but I want my end result to be great blooms and healthy plants with the greatest efficiency and this is how I do it now.
Dean.. it takes some work to do this too... but it will take a lifetime if you think you can cover a plot of your description with home made compost. I promise you it will work wonders for your soil if you cover with as much organic matter you can get your hands on. If it weren't for the much needed rain we are getting right now, I'd be trolling the streets for bags of leaves to load into the truck and bring home. I use to mow them to cut them up.. now I don't even bother. I dump them all over the places I want to build my soil and create new beds and mulch existing ones and it breaks down into seemingly nothing over time...just like compost in a bin!
As far as your subsoil underneath.. your really doing too much work if your thinking of removing it all and then replacing it will "good soil".. Reminds me of when I first started out and was told by an experienced gardener that the best way to get my soil right was to double dig all the beds I wanted to create..Ya right.. take a look at my huge beds and see how I would still be digging. I still see that method in the gardening books and think, gee, no wonder gardening is going by the wayside if thats what people think it takes to grow great flowers..
Here's an example of a huge soil transformation for you... Out by my side garden, I have a trash bin and my husband had changed the oil himself and placed the oil to be taken to a recycling center out by the bin. It got knocked over by one of my children who didn't bother to right it back up and oozed oil all over and down a slope where I had planned to plant. I was very disturbed to say the least.. Thought the toxic dump area would never ever be hospitable to plants and wanted DH to rent a backhoe to get it up and my shoveling and filling bucket after bucket was to no avail. It was a huge messy pile of muck. A local municipality gives away free leaf mold (chopped leaves that have been collected into a pile and cooked a little) each spring and I get it by the dump truck load and use it as mulch and pile it high where I'm creating new beds.. so I "covered" the oil slick with as much of the organic material as I could pile on to keep us from stepping in the oil and tracking it all around. While I really can't tell you how much time it took, one day out of curiosity, I stuck a shovel down as far as I could get it and dug up and around the slick and there was no oil. It was all pure black soil with no grease in it. It was transformed.. My husband isn't allowed to change oil at home anymore and here is where that happened.. My trash bin is just to the bottom left in this picture. and I have plants thriving where this happened and I later planted it in.
Sanna, you would use the exact same organic materials you would use in a compost bin.. no animal products. I've never had a varmit problem.. except for the flies that love apple cores.. so those get tossed further back on the property or gently buried and covered. Leaves that fall are a natural mulch, weed suppressor and soil food. They will attract millions of beneficial live bacterial and worms which will break it down quickly and build up your soil. Promise. I don't remove the leaves in beds over winter or come spring. I leave them in place and cover with more leaf mold for mulch. I do remove them from the grass areas and again dump them where I want food for my soil.
Feed your soil, not your compost bin.
This message was edited Dec 30, 2007 4:09 PM
I have 30 bags of leaves now that I'm lazy about shredding. Do you think I should just let them loose in the back yard and see what happens?
Pile them where you want to create a bed/beds. If there is grass or anything growing there, put down a thick amount of newspaper or cardboard first to smother the weeds/grass. Lay down the leaves and they will break down in place and in a couple of months you can dig to the bottom and see the black gold emerging. Try to keep feeding your soil with as much organic material as possible.
Thanks! Will do, My compost piles are full! Burp!
i think i already do this method to a certain extent--i do have a huge compost pile--but i don't wait for it to decompose--it is a sort of holding area and it does cook a bit--about once a week i go out and take wheel barrows of it to different flower beds--it is layed on thick and is mainly leaves, coffee grounds and shredded leaves--to me it is easier to have it in a compost pile till i am ready to spread it out --but i do end up letting it "compost" on the beds--i think it is easier than the lasagna method too since it just gets mixed in the big pile and no worry about layering-just dump and spread
Linda, Worms LOVE coffee grounds and it's a great food for them.. However, I only direct apply coffee grounds around evergreens as a top dressing.. And I dump and spread it directly onto areas where I will be creating beds to get those worms going good and strong. I do not place it directly around perennials or annuals in my garden. I once grew black eyed susan vine in an area I had heavily top dressed evergreens with grounds and while it grew vigorous and strong, it offered very few blooms and my best guess is that the soil PH took away from the blooms. Coffee grounds need to be neutralized into worm castings before they see your blooming flowers. :) ohhh.. and if you should get a wet bag or a leaky bag on your way out of the coffee shop and get it on your cars upholstery, it will never ever come all the way out!
I have a question for you, we moved into a house that had ivy smothered beds. We have weed whacked, pulled, and shoveled until we are exhausted. Do you think covering the area with cardboard and leaves will be effective?
I loved looking at your garden pictures, and I really enjoyed reading your message.
dove--i hired someone to dig deep and pull out our ivy which had been there for the 18 years we have lived here and who knows how long before that--it does keep popping up again and i keep pulling it out again--i think ivy is very hard to ever get rid of completly! i bet the cardboard will help tho!! at least it is easier to pull up now--i guess it's because it is newer ivy with weaker root systems?--good luck with your ivy destruction!!!
susan--thanks for the heads up on leaky grounds bags--learned from experience did you?! i am so glad you printed up all your info since it gives me confidence in what i have been doing--
ohhh Dovey.. Ivy :( Nope.. it will take more then cardboard and leaves. Pull out as much as possible and then maybe.. and I wouldn't be surprised if there were still a few sprouts. I have some coming through my fence from a neighbors property and I try to keep it cut back as much as possible. It's pretty when you want it :) Tough when you don't.
Thanks Penne :) It's my passion.
Yes Linda.. I've learned lots the hard way! No need for anyone else reading this to though :)
Dovey - Ivy is a tree. Seriously, it has gigantic roots & they have hands with claws on the ends that cling to the earth's subsoil & will not let go.
Cardboard - no. Been there.
Concrete - yes! But ever so difficult to garden in.
I hate to tell you, but you'll need to dig it out - go as deep as possible & remove as much root/leaf matter as you can.
There is a positive aspect to this: your soil will be nicely plowed up & you can mix in lots of compostables, cover it up & go your merry way.
I sincerely empathize with you.....
Thank you all for telling me what I really didn't want to hear *L*
The ivy has been there for some where between 40 to 60 years and we pretty much come to the conclusion our efforts will only make the it manageable. I've given up on planting those beds with roses.
I'm waiting for inspiration about what to plan in there. Hubby says only 100 year old colleges should be allowed to plant ivy.
dovey- when we got "rid" of our ivy it was old and woody and not so pretty anymore--now the ivy that comes up is not woody or tough looking but prettier--and as i said before -easier to pull up--sometime if i get tired of pulling it i might let it grow in again but at least it will look nice and fresh --rather than woody and tangled mess! so i guess what i am rambling on to say is that it is worth taking it up even if only to start over!!
susan--i just reread your article because it has inspired me so much lately--i am covering all my flower beds with thick layers of leaves--throwing in some shredded paper and coffee grounds--and skipping the compost pile ---i just have a few concerns--in many areas i covered the ground with paper to get rid of weeds, old plants etc--so how will the soil get the nutrients from my leaves etc? also in rereading the article it said the mulch must have micro organisms to break it down--am i right to assume that those just come into my leaf/shredded paper/coffee ground mix?
Linda, I think your flower beds will naturally supply all the microorganisms you'll ever need.
The soil will get the nutrients from the leaves as the leaves break down. And as Puddle said.. all the worms and microorganisms will appear to break it down over time, creating a rich topsoil. The worms will pull it down too.. No tilling required :) Think of it this way.. if you leave birdseed out in feeders, birds will come find it and eat it.. If you put down rich organic material, microbes will come digest it as well :) While a thick layer is great for building new beds.. remember not to put it on so thick in your existing beds that you don't let your plants see the light of day come spring.
ok --but what about the layer of paper to keep out weeds? doesn't it block the compost from working on the soil?
No - it decomposes just like everything else. I use it & cardboard to smother grass, but really wet it down well then put stuff on top.
Yes, exactly.. the paper is organic material just like your leaves.. I haven't wet mine down.. the rain does that for me.. However, if you leave the newspaper there and don't cover it up with something right then to weigh it down, the wind will take it.. been there and done that
It's a lovely garden. And I have a fair idea of how long it took to get it that way.
i lay down the big brown bags sold at lowes etc for recycling--i tear down one side and open it up---it is so large to cover a lot of area--and is made to decompose --and more quickly than the cardboard
I use the brown bags, too, after I pick them up along the road filled with leaves. If they are in good condition, I return them to the house where I picked them up so they can use them again.
Susan, It is rare that I read as much as you have posted and at the least come up with some minor differences of opinion if not worse.
Folks I have read this thread word by word and breath by breath. What Susan has presented is one of the best such discussions I have read anywhere.
Old habits are indeed hard to break but this is one you can build a little at a time. Any compost habits you may have or worm cast use practices may continue but will be mostly not needed once permanent mulch practices are nicely developed.
Along the way the so called basics are still important....manures, trace minerals, humic acids, organic fertilizers and black strap molasses for your living biology. In cold climates mycorrhiza needs to be replaced because the host plants do not grow to support those fungi over winter. These elements not including mycorrhiza in the north can be reduced to nearly no use as the permanent mulch system moves towards excellent each year it is faithfully worked, trusted and continued.
Cathy-that is too funny-because that is where i get my bags from too--picking up bags of leaves along the alley--AND--yes i have returned some bags to the houses too!!! i love that you do the same--my husband thinks i am crazy!
Linda, my husband thinks I'm crazy, too, but he will do just about anything for me, the sweet man, I'm so lucky!
Have enjoyed this thread, and have a question I posted elsewhere in the compost forum, but never got a good answer to.
I collect coffee grinds from my job at the rate of one 5-gallon bucketful every 8 days. I bring them home in the green garbage can liners, and tied them up at first, until I broke open a few bags last month to spread in the flowerbeds for the winter, and they were full of these huge larvae. Too large to be maggots. They look sorta like an oval stretched out pillbug, not rolled up in a ball, much bigger, whitish in color, and they move very slowly. Any idea what these larvae might be? The coffee grinds were fairly teeming with this critter. I hate maggots, but these weren't they. I googled several sites to try to identify them, but to no avail. After I found them in the bags, I started leaving the grinds in the buckets and putting the lids on them. I know they won't get any aeration with the lids on, but I'd rather air them out when I need them than face the teeming larvae!
I dumped all the leaves we raked in mid-November into a small flowerbed under two trees. I layered the leaves with the coffee grinds and sprinkled them down, just like I do my compost pile. I kinda figured like you did, that the organic matter would break down over time, and in place. And the worms would come because of the coffee grinds. Getting ready for Springtime. I went ahead and dumped the coffee grinds with those larvae into the bed. I guess I'll know soon enough what comes crawling (or flying) outta that flowerbed!
Thanks for any input.
I saw your name and read the entire thread...I'm smiling all the way through. I've always gardened that way, it just seemed natural. I never pick up the fall leaves out of the back garden, and I never realized it until a DG friend was here a couple years ago...and his eyes got big while touring the back garden..he stooped down, pinched some soil of the ground..and said...smell that...it was that rich sweet -you know it's nummy for the plants smell!
When spring comes along, I do pick up some of the areas to prevent the spread of any type of disease and fungus.
Cathy and PlanoLinda-- not so crazy! In fact Susan I think I was chatting with you when I expanded the front garden beds (time to do it again...soon the evil grass will be gone). Part of that expansion included dumping bags of leaves in the bed...layering cow manure and soil for a couple of weeks.. Having run out of leaves, I was driving home and noticed all these neatly bagged leaves from the lawn services politely set out on the curb ---How did they know!? LOL, so I just tossed bags of leaves in the SUV and drove the entire 2 blocks home. I'm on a leaf collecting expedition this weekend. That first year my next door neighbor came out and said..what in the world are you putting in your flower beds?? I've never seen Zinnias as big as they are in your garden. Well, it was my first year planting Zinnias, so I shrugged and said "leaves, manure and alfalfa.
Hey Linda!...google beetle larva....here's a link in fact....could be June bug?! scroll down past beetles and they have a photo http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/field/white_grub.htm
Linda, If the white grubs are causing problems eating on your roots there is one fine product out there to literally end it. Milky Spore Disease protects my property. While at first glance it seems costly it really is not. One application can last fifteen years. Each time a white grub comes into contact with a spore the grub dies and creates a ga-zillion more Milky Spores. The only way it can wear out on you is to for it to do a 100% kill and no more would fly in. In both instances this is unlikely. It does not attract the neighbors beetle to your property. It does not harm non-white grub beetle populations or any other beneficials.
Thanks cat5.. this garden is a baby actually :) Just started when my youngest started walking and he will be 5 in March. I'm just a full throttle personality type. :)
PlanoLinda yes.. I've had the bags sitting on an area before I needed them.. went to move them and the bottoms were gone :) They do decompose. You, Cathy and Rj have found a kindred spirit here casue I too take bags of leaves off the curb! It doesn't make you feel as crazy when you come here and find others doing the same things.. even though it really is kinda crazy to take bags of leaves off someones curb...but I've never been turned down when they've been there and I've asked, so I don't guess anyone really minds it. You and Cathy are both much nicer to return the bags.. I figure if I'm taking your "yard waste trash", I get to keep the bags in trade :) Lots of people around here use the large plastic bags to put their leaves in :( ?? One day I was in the truck driving slow.. looking for bags around the neighborhood trash and a guy thought I was "casing" the neighborhood.. I could tell by his body language.. So of course I rolled down the window and asked him where his bagged leaves were :)
Gym Linda..I haven't got the slightest idea what they are.. but we already know that they are composters and like beneficial worms, love coffee grounds.. so make sure of what they are before you take them out and squash them.. I've had the unfortunate experience of learning that something was desirable after it was too late :( The bug forum has some excellent people that really know their stuff. I'd post a pic there :)
Hey Rj! :) When I get my leaf mold in the spring, It gets piled up on the side of my driveway and it smells so sweet.. Like a rich sweet tobacco pipe smell.. Glad to hear your an in place composter too! Sometimes less really is more and it certainly applies to this method :)
Docgripe, thanks and yes..old habits ARE hard to break.. Especially when that's the way someone has been doing it all their life and that's the way their people did it and so on.. I must put milky spore on my list of things to do this season.. I've known about it, just haven't done it yet.
Yes..just like that. I do have a big mulch bin behind the garage too. I wish I had a wood chipper. that's where I throw all the trimmed stuff.
Is that less is more on already planted gardens? Yes...when I'm building beds..I layer it thick and let it go for a couple weeks..LOL, Less is more...I have a garden rule that nature has taught be, and use it frequently....In the plant world, a little, is alot!!
i am really enjoying this site---my husband tells me one day i will open a bag and someone will have thrown a dead squirrel in there and that will be the end of my leaf scrounging! and i do sometimes wonder if i will one day empty a bag and something gross will be in it--but it just hasn't happened--one time someone had cleaned out their flower garden and so it had begonia stuff in it but that works too--in fact in my mind i just thought-oh new stuff entering the site!!
oh wait Rj.... did i say that?? When it comes to plants less is never more.. more is always better.. I meant as we all know, doing less work in the case of composting is more and better for the soil! :) I like it crowded with more more more!! :)
Linda.. i haven't found anything like that yet! I enjoy this site too :)
LESS work for MORE plants. A fabulous gardening philosophy.
I can certainly understand why people are in a rush to create improved conditions in which to plant their prized plants. I found out by default that the soil will improve with the previously described methods. I have used both methods, depending on what I was trying to achieve. I have never worn patience well. But in trying a variety of ways, i found out what works best for me, in this region, with this climate & the available materials. I would rather spend time performing other gardening tasks, than turning compost. I also have enjoyed the learning process & observing the outcome over time.
Since I am a staff of 1 for my 1 1/2 acres, and work full-time, I must use my time wisely. Otherwise, nothing gets accomplished.