Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From the Archives: Compost Builds Character

Jessica Mitford, one of my journalistic heroes, came from a family rich in strong opinions and eccentricity. She was a socialist from her early teens; her sisters Diana and Unity were Nazis; her mother campaigned against vaccines and conventional medicine. And her mother's brother, Geoffrey Bowles, was a passionate if slightly loony advocate for composting, devoting much of his time to writing letters to the editor on the topic.

Here is an excerpt from Mitford's memoir, Daughters and Rebels:

In Uncle Geoff’s view, the greatness of England had risen and waned in direct proportion to the use of natural manure, or compost, in fertilizing the soil. The Black Death of 1348 was caused by gradual loss of the humus fertility found under forest trees. The rise of the Elizabethans two centuries later was attributable to the widespread use of sheep manure.

"Collating old records shows that our greatness rises and falls with the living fertility of our soil. And now, many years of exhausted and chemically murdered soil, and of devitalized food from it, has softened our bodies, and still worse, softened our national character. It is an actual fact that character is largely a product of the soil. Many years of murdered food from deadened soil has made us too tame. Chemicals have had their poisonous day. It is now the worm’s turn to reform the manhood of England. The only way to regain our punch, our character, our lost virtues, and with them the freedom natural to islanders, is to subsoil and compost our land so as to allow moulds, bacteria, and earthworms to remake living soil to nourish Englishmen’s bodies and spirits."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sharon Astyk's Independence Days Challenge

This is the weekly round-up of moves toward sustainability and adaptability suggested in Sharon Astyk's blog at  Mine is more like monthly, or maybe quarterly, but the idea remains--to hold ourselves accountable, make a record to compare with other years, and share our ideas.

Plant something -- Tomatillos, lettuce, chicory, cucumbers; transplanted winter squash, peppers and tomatoes; added soil for the potatoes in barrels, set up coffee bean bags for planting.
Coffee bean bags-- biodegradable planters
Harvest something --Lettuce; the last of last-year's chard, braised for dinner with a little wine and a couple of olives; cilantro for the chili; parsley for everything, lovage for soup stock. The sugar snap peas and fava beans are flowering, so it won't be long now.

Preserve something--A batch of vegetable stock for soups.

Waste not: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." My friend and neighbor is putting in a small lowered patio, so we dug out some of the dirt that has to go. It's pretty sandy and rocky; we screened out the rocks to use at the bottom of my many big pots and mixed the soil with my compost.

I'm still getting produce from my Food Bank produce sorting shifts. This week I bent my rules about only taking items that can't go out for distribution due to cuts, soft spots, etc. A big bag of enormous celeriac showed up--they were the size of bowling balls and looked as weird and unappetizing as only a celeriac can look. I figured they wouldn't get many takers, except maybe from a few of the Russian families, so I took one home. I've been chipping away at it for purees and soup.

Want not-- This is about stocking up, building long-term supplies of storage foods and household  essentials: Nothing this week.

Eat the food --This category includes trying new recipes that make the most of what we have on hand, rotating our stocks of stored foods rather than saving them for an even rainier day, etc. I rummaged through the freezer last night and unearthed various forgotten items, some of which became dinner. The frozen winter squash is now near the front and I swear I will do something with it soon.
Build community food systems-- I'm now a garden mentor for a Food Bank program that picks 20 families a year, builds a small raised bed in their yard, and supplies soils, seeds and vegetable starts. I'm assigned one family to work with through the summer. In fact, they are doing a terrific job on their own and haven't needed me yet, but maybe something will come up as the season advances. In a few weeks I will start doing some produce education in the waiting line at the Food Bank, focusing on the vegetables that the Food Bank contracts to buy from local organic growers.

Happy tomatoes with 1+ cubic yards of compost below

Skill up (learn to do something new)--I learned to do something old. Over the past several weeks I've made and used a old-fashioned hotbed.You dig a hole a little bigger than your cold-frame and two-and-a-half feet deep. Fill that to within six inches from the top with compostable materials--I used leaves, coffee grounds, my neighbor's chicken coop cleanouts, weeds and kitchen scraps. Make sure these layers are, in the words of my 1914 British garden guide, "well-trodden." This involves clambering down into the hole (if I were younger I would jump) and stomping around. Cover the compost-to-be with six inches of soil, to just above the surrounding soil line. It will sink a bit as the stuff breaks down. Put the cold frame on top and your starts and seeded pots inside. The bacterial action below heats up the soil for three or four weeks, giving warm season plants the head start that we need in cloudy Northwest Washington. My tomatoes and peppers are a month ahead of their usual development. As a bonus, whatever I plant there next year will have all that composted soil to feed on. Making a hotbed is also, I have to say, a commentary on the class system. It was a lot of work, a lot of digging and material hauling, for a few weeks of heat. You either need time or plenty of low-paid staff, especially to do it on a large scale.