CEU Earth Day Community Gardening Blog 1: Soil management and Composting from Quarantine

April 21, 2020

Each year CEU students and community members have the opportunity to participate in the Agroecology and Organic Gardening Systems (AOGS) course offered at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy. The course provides participants with a theoretical and practical introduction to agroecology and to organic farming techniques. Course participants are assisted in developing a comprehensive permaculture, agroecology and organic agriculture inspired plan for a garden which they could implement in a tangible location, while also coming up with their own ideas for gardening educational outreach materials which the students could help disseminate in the University community. 

Over the next few days, we will post a number of blogs developed by AOGS students in the 2019-2020 academic year as step by step lessons to start gardening at home. Students were encouraged to come up with practical outlines for at home gardening techniques which have particular relevance during the period of social distancing encouraged by the COVID-19 virus, as we were not able to conduct our student-run community-wide rooftop garden workshops this year. 

BLOG 1 - Soil management and Composting from Quarantine: 

A wonderful activity that can be done by yourself or with a friend 1.5 meters away!    

by Kumudu Herath, Lily Blain, and Bex Gottlieb

While most humans are hibernating at home, spring has sprung, which is an exciting time for home gardeners and farmers alike!

Despite the different circumstances in comparison to last spring, seeds still need to be sown, cover crop removed and plans need to be made for this spring, summer and fall. And regardless of how tempting the 'Next Episode' button is on Netflix, spending time outdoors (if feasible) can remind us that not all of life's pleasures have been suspended.

This first blog post will inform us about the basics of soil management and how to start up and maintain composting in both rural and urban settings during our time in quarantine. This compost can be added to the soil, making a nutrient-rich humus that plants will thrive in. This blog post will include tips on material collecting and compost layering.

So first things first, what is soil and what is important to know for managing it for your garden?

I. UNDERSTANDING SOIL

Soil is the growing medium for most agricultural practices. It is comprised of minerals or inorganic matter (such as quartz, clay, silt, etc.), organic matter (such as decaying animal and plant matter), living organisms (such as soil fauna, bacteria, fungi, etc.), water, and air (FAO 2020). A healthy soil requires all these elements to be present in appropriate amounts.

Figure 1: Soil texture triangle (Source: USDA Soil Texture.svg)

Soil texture and structure

There are three main types of soil particles; sand (coarse), silt (medium), and clay (fine), which vary depending on the size (FAO 2020). The soil texture or the "feel" of the soil depends on the relative amount sand, silt, and clay available in the soil (Figure 1). When a soil has more coarse particles the soil is loosely packed, therefore has more space between the particles. On the contrary, when the soil has more clay content it is dense and has fewer spaces between the particles. The amount of pores in the soil is important for plant growth as these spaces allow soil to hold water and air, which can be accessed by the plant roots. However, if the soil has too much sand, the soil loses the ability to hold water for a longer period. When the soil has too much clay the soil tends to get water logged without much air in it. Both of these conditions are unfavourable for agriculture. The most suitable soil for plant growth is loam, which has a mix of coarse, medium and fine soil particles.

Figure 2: Soil rich (left) and poor (right) with organic matter

Soil organic matter

Soil organic matter is the decaying plant and animal parts in the soil, for example debris of leaf litter. If a soil is rich with well-decayed organic matter it appears black in colour (Figure 2)and would have a fresh woody smell. Soil organic matter is a rich reserve of nutrients for the plants. As the organic matter releases the nutrients slowly, the plants have enough time to absorb those before it leaches away from the root zone. In addition, organic matter binds soil particles together and prevents the soil from being washed away with rainwater (SARE 2012). Soil organic matter absorbs water like a sponge and releases it slowly, thus the plants do not get dry easily.

Living organisms in the soil
Plant roots, earthworms, different types of bacteria, and fungi are some of the common living matter in soil. Earthworm holes and dead plant roots create pathways within the soil which helps the water to drain quickly into deeper layers of the soil. They also add organic matter to the soil. The earthworms eat organic matter in the soil and add vermi-compost back to the soil. Vermicompost is good quality organic fertilizer (IWMI 2020). Soil fungi live in association with the plant roots, and act as an "extended root system" of the plant in absorbing nutrients and water efficiently. This unique association is called mychorriza. A type of bacteria, growing inside the root nodules of legume plants, have the special ability to convert atmospheric Nitrogen into its' fertilizer form: Nitrate. Therefore, these bacteria are extremely useful in agriculture.

Figure 3: Mychorriza (Source: Researchgate.net)

What degrades the soil?

Unsustainable agronomic practices such as extensive use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, extensive tilling and using heavy machinery, poor drainage facilities, leaving soil exposed, and cultivating heavy yielding crops continuously without adding nutrients to the soil are some of the reasons for soil degradation.

Soil management

Here we discuss some of the basic organic gardening practices which help to maintain soil health and productivity, and thereby improve the crop yield. In each practice, what we are trying to do is to help the soil to maintain its basic elements and their functions which we discussed above.

1. Conservation tilling
Tilling is the agitation of soil before planting, to break the crust and large lumps, in order to facilitate the root growth and increase infiltration. However, extensive tilling with heavy machinery can disturb soil structure and microorganisms, cause soil compaction,and create a hardpan below the tilled layer of soil. Superficial/conservation tilling is done with light (mostly hand operated) tools so the soil is loosened but not compacted. In a home garden it is often enough to simply areate the soil with a pitchfork and loosed the top few centimeters with a hand tool cultivator.

2. Adding compost and manure
Addition of organic matter in the form of compost or manure (see below) enhances the soil nutrients and also improves the soil texture (Coleman 1995). It helps in retaining water in the soil for longer and also facilitates theactivity of soil living organisms such as earthworms and mychorriza.

3. Organic mulching
Mulching is covering the soil. It reduces evaporation from the soil surface and also suppresses the growth of weeds by blocking sunlight. In addition, when mulching is done with plant residues, it adds organic matter to the soil. Good mulching materials include seed-free materials such as straw, leaf litter, or woodchips from branches and prunings of deciduous/ hardwood trees.

4. Fallowing and cover cropping
Fallowing is a practice of leaving agricultural land uncultivated in alternate seasons, allowing the soil to accumulate moisture and nutrients (Gliessman 2014). During fallowing the land is cultivated with leguminous plants, which is not for harvesting. The leguminous cover crop not only reduces evaporation and erosion, but also fertilizes the soil with nitrate. The crop can either be dug into the top layer or the soil, composted or left to deteriorate, which adds nutrients in the form of organic matter, for the following crop.

II. COMPOSTING: RURAL Edition

Despite being one of the less-sexy parts of gardening, compost is essential for two reasons.

The first reason is that adding compost to the soil also improves the structure of the soil; adding compost will give the soil "good aeration and water retention characteristics and will be resistant to erosion" (Jeavons 1974, 33). The second reason is that composting is "an important way to recycle such elements as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, calcium, iron, phosphorous, potash, trace minerals and microorganisms" (Jeavons 1974, 33), all of which are essential to plant growth. Rather than paying for expensive and hazardous fertilizers, compost provides an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to feed your plants!

Let's start 'posting!

A rich compost is made from a combination of carbon, nitrogen, air, moisture and heat.

An ideal compost recipe looks like this:

¼ Carbon materials + ¼ soil + ½ Nitrogen materials
+ (air, moisture and heat).

This recipe can be altered, depending on the types of carbon and nitrogen materials as well as the levels of air, moisture and heat.

There are two main components of building an outdoor compost pile in a rural setting: materials to compost and a place to put them. Let's start with our compost materials. We need to gather our two types of compostable material: nitrogen and carbon components. Nitrogen components are often called 'green material' and are food scraps, grass clippings or anything that still alive. My main source of nitrogen materials comes from my kitchen. My family gathers banana peels, apple cores, onions peels, etc. to be composted. We do not collect any dairy or meat products for our compost. These products take longer to decompose, require higher temperatures and closer monitoring, and could attract wild animals and pests and ruin the consistency of the final compost.

I have two nitrogen compost bins. I have a smaller one in the kitchen as well as a larger one outside my kitchen. When my small container gets full, I empty it into the larger container outside my kitchen. This is so I can regulate how much nitrogen I put in my compost pile.

Do not put stickers in your nitrogen pile like I did by mistake!

This is my small nitrogen bin next to the kitchen sink.

This is the large nitrogen bin outside of the kitchen.

The storage required for this are any plastic, glass, or ceramic bins that have a cover or lid to prevent your nitrogen compost from stinking up the kitchen.

Here is a mixture of dried grasses, leaves and flowers.

The other component that is needed is carbon. Carbon is anything dried, often times referred to as 'brown' materials. This can include dried leaves, hay[1] , shredded paper, newspaper or cardboard, or dried grass clippings. I also collect this separately so that I can monitor what is going into my compost pile. This does not necessarily need to be covered, unless it stored outside in a windy spot that could potentially blow all the carbon materials away.

The second part is having a place to combine these materials. I use a plastic bin that protects the compost from animals. There are all types of vestibules to put your compost in: pallet-type compost bin, modular box type, large wire fabric type or an open pile, which requires no additional materials (Jeavons 1974, 39). The type of bin is important in determining how much moisture your compost will retain, causing the decomposition process to speed up or slow down.

Here is he plastic bin next to our garden

Now that we have all of our components, it's time to mix some compost! Rather than mixing in all the ingredients like I would a cake, it is better to layer the different aspects of the compost one on top each other. You should also add soil or already made-compost as a starter supply of microorganisms (Jeavons 1974, 36). We should start with the carbon materials on the bottom, then the nitrogen materials and then the soil and then repeat, starting with carbon layer. The carbon and nitrogen layers should be 2-4 centimeters thick and the soil layer should be about 1 centimeter thick (Jeavons 1974, 37). If the materials seem dry, you might need to water it in between the layers.

And here I (Lily) am pictured with my compost (Thanks Mom!)

Your compost should remain moist, not soaked, warm, but not too hot and full of air, which requires it be turned every few weeks. I can turn the compost from the top of the plastic bin using a shovel to take the top layer and turn it inside the bin, as well as collect my fresh compost from the compartment on the side (see photos below). As you can see, microorganisms have been hard at work turning my food and yard scraps into a delicious nutrient-filled compost for the herbs, vegetables and flowers that I will be planting in the next few weeks!

        
III. COMPOSTING: URBAN Edition

Are you self-isolating and interested in learning a new skill in your newfound free time that can reduce landfill waste, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, improve soil, and benefit agriculture? Composting might be just the activity for you!

"But I live in an apartment in the city – there's no way I can compost!", you might be thinking. Well think again! This blog post covers two composting methods that are specifically modified for people living in urban settings without access to a garden or patio. City dwellers can compost and reap the benefits by adding the compost to windowsill planter boxes or rooftop gardens or by giving it to friends or neighbours with gardens.

Why should I compost?

Composting is a great way to reduce the amount of waste that gets sent to landfills and also help generate healthy soil for growing food. Compost improves soil structure and provides nutrients that are essential for plant growth. Compost also helps soils retain moisture, increases aeration, promotes conditions for soil microbes, and acts as a pH buffer (Jeavons, 1991).

Worm composting (Information from Marsh 2009; US EPA 2016; Sherman 2016; and Novak 2016.)

A great composting method if you don't have a balcony or other outdoor area is with a worm bin, otherwise known as a vermicomposter. Worm bins don't take up very much room, they are inexpensive to make, and easy to maintain.

How does worm composting work?

Worms are very effective decomposers that can take raw organic material and turn it into a humus-like material (Marsh 2009). The organic waste is digested by the worms and the resulting material, known as castings, is significantly higher in important nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium than the surrounding soil (Jeavons 1991). The worms also stir the waste, which incorporates air into the process and speeds up the decomposition process. The worms also benefit the other microorganisms in the bin that help with the decomposition process by increasing the surface area of organic material (Marsh 2009).

How can I start a worm bin?

A worm bin is easy and inexpensive to set up. In fact, you may be able to repurpose materials you already have to start your worm bin.

Materials

  • One plastic bin with a lid
  • Drill
  • Scrap fabric
  • Waterproof glue
  • A piece of cardboard that can cover the plastic bin

Instructions

1. Drill some holes in the bottom of the bin. These will allow water to seep out of the bin.
2. Using waterproof glue, glue a layer of fabric to the bottom of the bin on the inside and ensure all of the holes are covered. This will prevent worms and organic material from falling out of the bin through the holes.
3. Place the plastic bin on top of its lid with the lid turned up. The lid will serve as a liquid catchment tray.
4. Use a piece of carboard that is slightly larger than the plastic bin as a lid. This will allow air into the bin but will discourage fruit flies.



Source: Marsh 2009.

Setting up the worm bin

  • Combine shredded paper, a little soil and a little water in the bin to create a layer of bedding that is 8-15 cm high. Only use noncolored newspaper, office paper or cardboard. The mixture should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. This serves as bedding for the worms.
  • Add ½ to 1 pound of worms for each square foot of bin surface area. Eiseniafetida is the suggested species of composting worm. There are many places to purchase composting worms, both online and in stores. In the US, Uncle Jim's Worm Farm is a popular online shop: https://unclejimswormfarm.com. In Europe, Wurmwelten ships to most countries: https://www.wurmwelten.de/.
  • Cover the worm bin and leave a light on near the worm bin for a few days. Because worms prefer darkness, the light will discourage the worms from leaving the bin while they settle into their new home.
  • Let the worms settle in for a day or two before feeding them.

Maintaining the worm bin

Feed the worms once a week:

Collect food scraps in a container throughout the week.

Good worm food (whatever you feed them should ideally be in small pieces) includes:

  • Fruits (but citrus and citrus peels only in small amounts)
  • Vegetables
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags
  • Bread and cereal
  • Small pieces of paper

Bad worm food:

  • Meat/fish
  • Bones
  • Dairy
  • Greasy food
  • Pet manure

To feed the worms, dig a hole in the worm bin, add some scraps of paper, add the food waste on top of the paper, then cover the food waste with moist paper and dirt to discourage fruit flies.
Remove old scraps from the bin that have not been eaten for a while.
Cover the worm bin.

Harvesting the vermicompost

Every few months you can harvest the vermicompost and the liquid in the lid.
The liquid can be diluted at added as fertilizer to indoor or outdoor plants.
To harvest the vermicompost, only feed the worms on one side of the bin for a few weeks to draw them to that side. Harvest the vermicompost from the side without the worms.
The harvested vermicompost can be used immediately or stored and used later. Add the compost to potted indoor or outdoor plants, gardens, or lawns.
Indoor composting (information from Reddigari 2017; Jeavons 1991; and Novak 2016.)

If you're not keen on keeping worms in your home but still want to compost, you're not out of luck! Another option is indoor aerobic composting. Aerobic composting uses microbes to break down kitchen waste and other organic matter into material that can be used as a plant fertilizer.

Setting up and maintaining an indoor composting system

1.Start with a large plastic storage bin with a lid. An 18-gallon bin is a good size for a 2-4-member household.
2. Using a drill, evenly drill quarter inch air holes on the bottom, sides and lid of the bin. The decomposition process requires oxygen so it's essential that air can get into the bin.
3. Next, place the bin inside a larger bin or tray that's at least a couple inches tall. This tray will serve to collect any moisture that drains from the compost bin.
4. Start composting! Keep in mind that a compost bin needs more than just kitchen scraps to work. Both "green" (nitrogen-rich) material and "brown" (carbon-rich) materials are needed in a compost bin. The ratio between the "greens" and the "browns" will determine how quickly the material breaks down. A suggested ratio is 1/3 "browns", 1/3 "greens", and 1/3 soil by weight (Jeavons 1991):

a, "Greens" include kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and wet plant trimmings (but don't add meat, cooked food, dairy, or fat)
b, "Browns" include dry plant material (leaves, straw, grass, small twigs), newspaper, sawdust, and wood shavings.

To start off, you can fill your bin about halfway full with damp "browns" and add some soil to it. As you accumulate kitchen scraps and other compostable material, bury them a bit in the soil/"brown" material and cover the bin with the lid.

5. Mix the compost once a week to aerate it.
6. It will take two to four months for the material to be turned into a soil-like compost. At this point it can be added to potted indoor or outdoor plants, gardens, or lawns.

Other options

If you're not interested in becoming a worm-owner or starting an indoor aerobic compost bin, you can still contribute to composting efforts in other ways. For example, the Humusz Foundation in Budapest (https://humusz.hu/hirek/compost-program-16district-budapest/1092) accepts people's household compost and teaches community members about composting. There is also free program called ShareWaste (https://sharewaste.com/) that connects people with compostable material to people with compost systems and vice versa. There are a number of ShareWaste users in Budapest who are eager to take kitchen waste to add to their own composting projects. It's free to sign up. Just remember that this might not be a best time to participate in ShareWaste because it may violate social distancing guidelines. In the meantime, you can freeze your kitchen waste until it's safer to take them to someone seeking compost materials. Once the virus restrictions are lifted, CEU community members can also bring their kitchen scraps (no dairy or meat or cooked or baked products, please) to the CEU rooftop garden compost bins on the Nador 15 rooftop next to the student garden.

Happy composting!

Works Cited and References for Further Reading:

Coleman, E. 1995. Soil fertility. In The new organic grower: A master's manual of tools and techniques for the home and market gardener 95-112. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing

FAO. 2020. The soil. Accessed 30 March 2020. URL: http://www.fao.org/3/u8480e/U8480E0b.htm

Gliessman, S. R. 2014. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, 105 - 116. New York: CRC Press.

International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 2017. Healthy soils for productive and resilient agricultural landscapes. Towards sustainable intensification: Insight and solution brief 2. Accessed 29 March 2020. URL: https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/83058/WLE%20Sustainable...

Jeavons, J. 1991. How to grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine: a primer on the life-giving biointensive method of organic horticulture. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Marsh, L. 2009. Composting your organic kitchen wastes with worms. Virginia Polytechnic University and State University.

‌Novak, A. 2016. The rooftop growing guide: how to transform your roof into a vegetable garden or farm. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Raddigari, M. 2017. All you need to know about indoor composting. Bob Vila. URL: https://www.bobvila.com/articles/indoor-composting/.

Sherman, R. 2016. Home composting with earthworms. North Carolina State University.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). 2012. Soil Management. Accessed 30 March 2020. URL: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/Smart-Water-Use-on-Your-F...

‌US EPA. 2016. How to create and maintain an indoor worm composting bin. United States Environmental Protection Agency. URL: https://www.epa.gov/recycle/how-create-and-maintain-indoor-worm-composti....


[1]Pine needles take a lot longer to break down and have a different PH, so not usually the best in your regular compost

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