Sunday, June 22, 2003

binless composting

What method of composting is:

--uses only natural materials that you have around?*
--blends into the environment most harmoniously?*

* The Bird's Nest Bin!

Tompkins County Cooperative Extension Demo Site: Compost Fair May 2002

The bird's nest bin, also known as the binless bin, is a naturally constructed compost bin that you build out of the large, coarse plant materials that you have around the yard. Instead of throwing the big stalky stuff, like broccoli and kale plants, prunings from bushes, sunflower stalks, etc., into one pile together with the small, easy-to-degrade stuff like young weeds and kitchen food waste, they are separated so that the heavy-duty materials make up the walls and the finer materials are in the center. What a simple concept and how beautifully it works!

Without so much bulky material mixed in, the finer materials get to break down faster. The bin looks much neater than if everything is thrown together. Reminiscent of a bird's nest, the binless bin blends naturally into the landscape with charm and character. No need to buy plastic bins or build other structures.

It's easy to make a bird's nest bin. Pound four stakes into the ground to make a square four to six feet wide. These will provide all the structural support you need. Within the square, lay a few stalks crisscross on top of each other on the ground. This will allow some air to come through the bottom of the pile and be drawn upward through the pile to enhance breakdown. Around the perimeter, lay down your coarse materials to make walls eight to ten inches thick: big weeds, spent vegetable plants and flowers, prunings from shrub or trees, edges of sod you've dug up, old hay if you've got an excess of it--whatever you've got around, that you want to get rid of.

The center of the pile is reserved for the small stuff and the rotten stuff. Add food waste from the kitchen, the little weeds from the garden, the rotten fruit found under the trees. Always remember to cover up any food waste so as not to invite animals. Try to have a supply on hand at all times of something, like weeds, leaves, wood chips, or straw, to layer in with your food scraps and cover it up. If you don't have enough leaves of your own, there's a plentiful supply every fall, when people kindly leave these bags full of the precious compost ingredient (and excellent mulching material, but that's another story) on the curb.

Keep the walls higher than the center at all times, so nothing falls out. Once the bin is a few feet high, after a garden season, you can let it sit and start another. After a year or so the interior of the bin left sitting will become dark compost, unrecognizable in origin, ready to enrich your garden. The wall material will have only partially broken down and can be re-used for a new bin.

Eventually you might want to expand to a three-bin unit. The bin in the middle shares a wall with the other two. This way you can always have one bin sitting and ripening; another to add to, and the third for harvesting finished compost.

Try it and see the magic of composting for yourself!

With thanks to the Master Composter Program of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County with funding from the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

peas and volunteers

Peas and snow peas are coming on thick. All of a sudden, just as the asparagus are starting to wane.

The most meticulous gardener may not reap as much as the watchful gardener. Though leisurely, the watchful gardener is not exactly lazy. The watchful gardener observes and thinks as well as works. Some efforts are made to plant favorites, but he or she often takes a step back and pays attention to what nature is providing for free.

If you have had occasion to grow dill or cilantro in your garden and if you are not a very fastidious sort of gardener, who tills everything up each year, you may have noticed that the plants have re-seeded themselves here and there around the garden. Many annual flowers, such as sweet alyssum and calendula, do the same thing. Although arugula (also called rocket or as the French say roquette and to the Italians and Spanish it's rugula or ricola) is gone from the scene all too soon, sending up flowers like white stars in early June, it just might show up later in the summer in a nearby spot.

To be on the safe side, I try to re-sow little patches of arugula and cilantro during the summer, as they are such essential ingredients. They are best eaten fresh. Observing and making room for the volunteers saves work. Yet gardening involves ruthlessness too. A plant in the wrong place really belongs on the compost pile--there will be plenty more. Or you can take the trouble to transplant it.

Little walnut trees are popping up here and there in the garden and the lawn from part of the stash that the squirrels left behind. There are plenty of walnut trees around the West End to keep the squirrels busy in the fall and well-fed in winter. Looking at the finely ordered leaves of the mini walnut tree, I envision letting it grow big, but the impact of its great shade is too hard to take for a gardener with a small yard, and I pull it out. Now the frisky squirrels are going for the walnut-sized peaches that are hanging in the trees, but most of what they grab seems to end up on the ground.

Cilantro comes on slowly, and there are only a few leaves to pick, and then suddenly there is such an abundance that you can't use it all fresh, Very quickly it goes to flower and is gone. I leave some to spread its seed and for the sake of its airy white flowers, which make you faint in bouquets.. I serve as much as possible fresh, chopped and thrown on anything from Mexican burritos to Thai-inspired stir-fries, but can't use it all. Have been trying to think of the best ways to preserve it to add that special flavor on the days when it is no longer freshly available. Chopped fine and blended with mashed garlic and lime juice and salt, it can hang out for a while in a jar in the cool part of the refrigerator and be ready for jazzing up salsa and all the same things for which it was good fresh.

The dill is out of control--it volunteers all over the garden and I hate to pull it out unless I have to, like if it's crowding other favored plants. I just don't have enough uses for it. I will have more use for it when the cucumbers are ready for pickle-making, but that's a ways off. I froze a bunch of it for winter soups, and I made a sauce for asparagus of snipped dill, yogurt, homemade hot honey mustard and minced and mashed fresh garlic. And for the Fourth of July it will go minced into the potato salad.

The peas are coming on in early June as I write this, climbing high the trellis netting and dripping pea pods from white blossoms. By the end of June all will have been shucked and eaten. Lambsquarters are growing lush where the soil is good. Often a weed in rich fertilized crop fields, they also pop up thickly in spots in my well-composted garden. Pull the biggest ones by the roots to take to the kitchen. After observing former housemates use lambsquarters, I was inspired to try them in the as a substitute for spinach in the spinach-rice casserole recipe found in the  The New Moosewood Cookbook. Although lambsquarters don't hold a match to raw spinach in salads, they definitely rival it cooked. Stoop-sitting or porch-sitting on a beautiful day when you want to get out of the kitchen, out of the house, is a good time for pulling the leaves, whether alone in contemplation, listening to the birds and the traffic, or talking with whomever is around. Like Huck Finn, you may get volunteers to help you, but I wouldn't count on it, better just try to do outside and enjoy. Have a bowl for the good leaves and another for the pods or stems and roots that will end up in the compost. Then take the good leaves into the kitchen and swish them in a basin of cold water. Drain and they're ready to cook.

It's good to leave some lambsquarters around to go to seed. The birds feed on them in the wintertime, and some are left behind for next year.