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Still wooing only low-end compost markets?

Years ago, when composting as a service was still in its infancy, “compost markets” could be summed up by one word – agriculture.  It seemed the logical market for a product that, admittedly, was not always top quality and needed to be used far away from sensitive noses.

Farmers appreciated this free or low-priced amendment that boosted yields, lowered input costs, and increased profits.

Fortunately, the composting industry has matured.  Many facilities are now turning out high quality product.  But there may still be too much marketing (and public policymaking) energy devoted to agriculture when much more lucrative sales opportunities are ignored.  Yet these soil-centric markets are in dire need of compost, too.

It’s not just for farmers anymore

Despite industry efforts to spread the word about compost use beyond the farm, there still seem to be too many people in high places (a.k.a. senior managers and other decision-makers) who don’t understand what compost can do for urban and suburban soils.

And if the composter doesn’t keep hacking through the jungle of the Compost Clueless, no one else is going to grasp the wide range of applications for this product, either.

In the US, there are about 250 million crop acres.  But the number one irrigated “crop” is not corn or wheat.  In fact, it’s not even farm grown or included in that acreage number.

Across America spread 40 million acres of watered grass covering suburban lawns, golf courses, parks, and other greenspaces.

That’s approximately 2% of the continental land mass and an area about the size of the state of Florida.

Each of those acres would require far fewer irrigation gallons each season if there were some compost under foot.

But wait, there’s more

And let’s not forget the millions of non-irrigated acres of –

  • Roadsides – over 4 million miles of public highways in the US.  If we calculate just a minimum 10 feet x two shoulders for each of those miles, we arrive at 9.7 million acres.  That number certainly represents a conservative estimate since it does not take into account the wider greenspaces along interstates and other main thoroughfares, rest areas, vegetated medians, etc.
  • Lawns – about 10 million acres of them in the US (includes irrigated acres).
  • Parks – 84 million acres of national parks, 14 million acres of state parks,  11.5 million acres in city parks.  Rough estimate: 110 million acres.  We couldn’t find an average acreage number for county parks, but there must be a lot of them.  Admittedly, some parkland is water or rock, not trees, turfgrass, planting beds, or other candidates for compost application.
  • Athletic fields – 700,000 averaging roughly 1.4 acres per playing surface for an additional 980,000 acres.

By the time we add in other unknown green acres like churches, hospitals, schools, and business park campuses, the potential of these markets promises to rival or surpass agriculture in both total acreage and revenue potential.

These are all markets that take pride in the quality of their respective green spaces.  They value and are willing to pay for products that deliver results.  And every square foot and acre under management will look and perform better when that soil is amended with compost.

Time for a broader focus for compost markets

By taking in the big picture, it becomes clear that at least some of the organic waste stream should stay where it was generated – in the urban area. 

When 80 percent of the population is urban, and both the number of farms and farm acreage shrinks a little more each year, does it really make sense to expect agriculture to manage and absorb what could become billions of tons of compostable waste from cities?

Managing the bulk of organic waste where it is generated would not deprive agriculture of composting feedstocks.  In fact, some agricultural regions are already dealing with more farm generated organic waste than they can successfully handle without raising environmental red flags.

Manure and effluent, bedding, spoiled feed and hay, harvest waste – it’s all compostable.

Currently, most livestock mortality is incinerated, buried, or rendered.  Couldn’t some of that waste be diverted to composting, too?  

Urban compost markets are the future

By throwing emerging compost markets like urban gardens, rain gardens, green roofs, and vertical farms into the greenspace mix, compost manufacturers have ample opportunity to expand distribution channels.  They can do it without schlepping feedstocks out to remote farming communities for composting and then trucking it all back to town for end use. 

The positive impact on transportation costs and greenhouse gas generation cannot be ignored, either.

But fair warning:  Close-to-the-city composting for high volumes of food waste and other challenging streams does require thoughtful siting, secure processing environments, and active process management.  

Top dollar sales depend on high product quality and sophisticated marketing efforts.  Low quality product, a stack of flyers, and a sign on the gate just aren’t going to cut it when you’re trying to slice yourself a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

Compost has many uses.  Agriculture is certainly one of them.  But so is stormwater management and turfgrass management and long-term carbon storage.

Farmers will continue to be important customers for compost products.  But they needn’t be your one and only.

Don’t put an artificial cap on revenue potential by restricting your operation to the production and sale of agricultural products.  

There oughta be a law

California has wrapped up a parcel of bills that will, among other things, stop manufacturers from placing recycling/compostable symbols on products that are not recyclable/compostable in that state.

They will also stop folks from claiming recycling for plastics shipped offshore where they end up in incinerators and landfills.

Tricksy labeling, sleight of hand “recycling” – the sad fact is that these practices were/are so pervasive that legislators had to craft new laws to stop them.

Unfortunately, not all composting-related bills are meeting with the same good fortune.

Most in the composting community viewed the Compost Act as a step in the right direction.  But recent reports indicate no one will be popping corks on the bubbly in celebration of this composting law this year.

Composting law highlights

If you haven’t read either the House (HB4443) or Senate (S2388) versions, here are some of the key points:

  • $200 million is designated for each year through 2032 for composting grants and loan guarantees with a per project max of $5 million.
  • Almost any type of government, institutional, or non-profit entity may apply, plus farmers and ranchers.  However, unlike that particular category of business owners, all other for-profits are excluded.  Fortunately, those folks can participate as part of a collaboration with approved applicant types.
  • A specific target is food waste, especially where it is being generated in significant amounts in an area with low composting capacity.
  • All sorts of composting-related projects will be considered, including collection and marketing.
  • Organics must be source separated; no mixed MSW.  
  • Only proven designs and technologies will be considered.

The percentage of bills passed compared to the total number of bills introduced in each legislative session is in the single digits.  So, the current bill’s status might be considered typical. 

But at least this year’s activity has presented more opportunities for dialogue about compost and composting in high places.  And it appears this type of communication is very much needed.

Right hand, meet left hand

As pointed out in this BioCycle article by Dr. Sally Brown, lack of awareness can get in the way of compost use by government agencies.

For example, compost has been found to be beneficial in the stabilization and restoration of soils damaged by wildfires.  However, while the composting industry is well aware of compost’s magical soil-healing powers, it seems to be news to the US Forest Service.

Little research has been done in this area, so the department might have an excuse for their lack of awareness.

But, come on, folks.  The Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture.  Surely someone in the USDA could have put two and two together by now and sent the Forest Service a memo about compost?

Must it take a literal act of Congress and a $2 billion carrot to get more people to wake up to the amazing benefits of compost use?

Apparently so.

The disappointing number of Compost Clueless in high places also serves as a reminder to the industry.  There’s still much work to be done.  And the current stack of circular economy bills are just early mile markers on the road to true sustainability for organics.

A composting gardener’s best friend is … a chicken

Puppy dogs, move over.  In the garden, a human’s best friend is a bird.

It’s good to have a gardening friend, especially one who can help with the composting, and weeding, and bug patrol – and still have the energy to provide an egg for breakfast most mornings.  We’re talking, of course, about a feathered friend, the chicken.

While most folks’ only acquaintance with the bird stems from its exalted position on the dinner plate, the live fowl can provide many years of dedicated service in the garden with minimal time or dollar investment.

The chicken as composting assistant

Chickens love to dig and scratch in the dirt.  That’s where they forage for food.

So if you toss veggie scraps in their pen or turn them loose on your compost pile, you may never have to turn that pile again.

Of course, their efforts won’t be nearly as neat as your own.  But if a commercial composting operation can use chickens to turn, so can you.

Can’t stand a messy compost pile?  Simply reshape the mound or windrow when they’ve eaten their fill.

Alternatively, sheet compost in the garden by spreading vegetable scraps out on unplanted rows or beds.  Their scratching will quickly turn that garbage into black gold.

The same action will help  to spread and incorporate compost you buy, too.

Put chickens on bug and weed patrol

You don’t want chickens scratching around in newly seeded rows or recent transplants.  But you can use them as biological bug zappers when plants mature.

Let a couple of chickens loose among the established rows each evening about an hour before nightfall.  You’ll never see another hornworm on the tomatoes again.  In fact, a host of creepy crawlers will disappear.

If chickens patrol the garden on a regular basis, weeds won’t be as big of a problem, either.  All of that scratching clears out emerging grass and weeds.

The chickens will return to the roost on their own before dark.  It may be necessary, however, for you to watchdog your helpers while they feed.  Hawks and other marauders consider chickens to be a tasty treat.

Restricting their time in the garden to about an hour each day will also limit their destructive powers.

Cock-a-doodle-don’t

Chickens are social creatures, so you need to have at least two.   But avoid roosters unless you want to go into the poultry business or harvest lots of chickens for your own table.

Sans rooster, a hen will lay an unfertilized egg every day or so throughout their adult lives, living for 5-10 years on average, depending on breed and living conditions.

With only hens, you and your neighbors won’t have to tolerate any irritating crowing at odd hours, either.

Once you’ve had some time to evaluate the capabilities of two hens, then you can decide if you need to add more chickens to your composting and gardening power team.

Be aware, however, that hens take a little time off from their egg laying duties during the winter months unless you artificially create more favorable lighting conditions.

How to pick a chick 

First, research zoning regulations and/or HOA rules to make sure you are permitted to have chickens on your property.

Then, seek out a layer operation in the region and source your hens from there.  A small, organic farm could be ideal, since they are likely raising heritage breed chickens.

The eggs from heritage hens may look and taste much the same as those produced by their conventionally-grown sisters.  But the plumage of a Rhode Island Red, Dominicker, or other older breeds can be much more colorful than production hens and provide extra protection against airborne predators.

Other traits can make one breed preferable over another, too, depending on an owner’s objectives.

Commercial egg producers will cull layers (battery hens) when they reach 1-3 years of age because egg production slows over time.  That’s when/why a farmer might be willing to sell a few birds.

Considering there are about 325 million layers in the US, the loss of one egg per week per hen is a big deal for a commercial producer.  But these older ladies will do just fine for a backyard flock.

You can also find chickens for sale at country auctions and online.  There are backyard chicken groups on the popular social sites, too.

But a few words of caution:

Unless you plan to go into the chicken business, don’t be tempted to buy peeps.  Yes, they’re cute, little balls of fluff.  But if you don’t want roosters, know that even the specialists hired by professional poultry producers to help them distinguish the gender of hatchlings sometimes get it wrong.

Buying an adult bird eliminates the guesswork and prevents your yard from being overtaken by too many chickens.

Also know that even hens make noise.  They’re not nearly as irritating as roosters, but they’re not silent during the day as they go about their scratching and egg laying.

Fortunately, they are quiet at night unless something disturbs their slumber.

Managing your garden helpers

Too many chickens can destroy a yard or garden.  That’s why you’ll probably want to start with only two.  You can always add more later.

Build or buy a secure chicken house or coop.  You don’t want rats and mice getting in because snakes will follow the rodents.  Mice can squeeze through a ¼-inch gap, so build it tight.  

Don’t forget to cover all chicken runs with wire mesh or other protective cover to keep your helpers safe.

As for food, chickens are domestic creatures, not bred for living in the wild.  They will likely need supplemental feed even if they are allowed to forage all day, especially in the winter.

Treat them well, keep ’em fed and watered, and those hens will reward you with well-turned compost, a bugless garden, and free eggs for many years to come.

Compost is the perfect companion for lazy gardeners

Whether you lack time, interest, or energy, compost can be the one product that gives you the garden of your dreams without a whole lot of effort.

You don’t want to spend the day putzin’ around with the bees, burning your nose to a crisp, or giving your knees a workout from which they may never recover.  You just want a few fresh veggies for the table and a petunia or two.

Well, darlin’, we have the perfect garden companion for you.

It’s called compost.

Put it in the ground, a container, or a garden sock.

Use it to build the soil, retain moisture, and deter nuisances like pests, diseases, and weeds.

Rely on it for conventional, regenerative, organic, sustainable, hydroponic, biointensive, or permaculture growing systems.

Shovel, rake, till, or plow it in … or simply sprinkle on top of the soil.

Layer it on thick enough, and it will serve as a root-cooling mulch, too.

Apply in the spring, mid-season, or fall.

One product, added to the soil once or twice a year, is all most home gardens will ever need.

It’s never too late to start a garden

If you could spell procrastinator before anyone else in your class had ever heard the word … 

You fully intended to start a garden by seeding tomatoes in February for spring transplanting.  But the packet of seeds is still sitting on top of the microwave.

The little 4×8 patch of lawn you painstakingly cleared and double dug on that blustery cold day in early March hasn’t been touched since and has already been reclaimed by centipede grass.

Yes, procrastination has struck again, this time, derailing those plans for a summer garden.

But as the saying goes, ’tis better late than never.  More to the point, there’s still plenty of time to plant and harvest.

It’s okay to start a garden now

Even growers who managed to seed those early crops will be busy through the summer months sowing for fall 2021 or early spring 2022 harvests.

In more temperate climes (zone 7-13), it’s possible to grow year-round, though some plants may need a little shade during the hottest months.

With the help of things like cold frames and row covers, points north may be able to extend their growing season, too – without investing in greenhouses.

The Internet abounds with schedules and crop suggestions to kickstart your garden regardless of the calendar page.

Other good resources for information about what to plant in your area – and when – include your local Cooperative Extension office, as well as farm supply stores and garden centers.

Whenever you plant, don’t forget the compost.  It can be used above or below ground almost any time of year. Don’t start a garden without it.

FAQ:  How do I add compost to mature trees and shrubs?

Q:  My established plantings need some compost, but won’t all that digging hurt the root systems?

A:  Think “massage” and not “excavation” to add compost to mature trees and shrubs.  It’s hard to overdo it when using compost and as little as 1/8 of an inch can net visible results.

While there are many ways to apply this soil amendment, these are among the easiest:

For mulched trees 

Scrape away mulch and, using the spreading method of choice, apply up to 2 inches of compost out to the drip line (the widest point of the tree canopy).  

Rake lightly to even out the surface.  But no need to dig in.  This application method is called “top dressing” for a reason.  Happily, over the coming weeks and months, Mother Nature will take care of soil incorporation for you.  Simply reapply the mulch once the area has been covered with compost.

If some of the area under the tree is grassed 

Gently work up to 1/2 inch of compost into the turf with a rake or broom.  You are giving the earth a gentle back scratch, not plowing.  But it’s okay to scratch a little harder where you have bare spots or fairy rings, because compost has been known to help solve some of these types of yard maintenance issues.

A light sprinkle with the hose or irrigation system can also help move compost from the grassy surface to the soil.

But keep the water use to a minimum.  If the application area gets too wet, you’ll just lose all that compost to runoff, wasting both the water and the compost while becoming a contamination source for receiving waters or the stormwater system.

For shrubs and planting beds

Remove mulch, lay down up to 2 inches of compost, and remulch. As an alternative, if you want to apply 3 or 4 inches of compost, it can serve as mulch.

Just be careful to avoid piling compost up around woody stems and tree trunks.  This practice invites insects and could, eventually, kill the plant.

Try compost to cut costs and boost profits

Farmers aren’t using compost just to help the environment.  They’re using it because compost increases the bottom line.

Like the cowboys of the old West, field crop farmers spend a lot of time in the saddle. That seat may be well-padded vinyl inside an air-conditioned cab or painted metal bouncing along atop an ancient Farmall H. 

But no matter how glitzy or simple the ride, the occupants of those seats spend many hours a day alone with their thoughts, traversing mile upon mile of terrain as they navigate back and forth across their fields.

One of the things they think about is soil.  And over the years, there has been a significant shift in thinking as conventional farmers embrace soil practices once thought to be reserved for sustainable/organic agriculture.

Organic production may only represent 2% of all agricultural acreage in the US.  But, depending on the information source and the crop, the number of farmers using one or more sustainable practices could now be as high as 95%.

From extended crop rotations to compost use, these types of environmentally-preferred applications have been shown to increase both yields and profits.  This success encourages other growers to try compost.

In fact, in regions served by McGill facilities, conventional farmers have been adding compost to their fields for decades for just those reasons.

Why has compost become such an integral component of American agriculture?  Because it rebuilds damaged, depleted soil.  It replenishes lost organic matter, beneficial soil microbes, and nutrients.  Healthy soil grows healthy plants that can better resist pests and diseases.  It holds more water while, at the same time, improving drainage.

And because compost use improves nutrient intake, farmers can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers applied to their fields, too.  All of these benefits contribute to higher profits.

Ready to try compost?

Compost is the thoughtful choice for organic, sustainable, regenerative, conventional, plasticulture, permaculture, biointensive, urban, vertical … almost any type of farming (or gardening) system, indoors or out, irrigated or not.

Apply it with a spreader truck, blower truck, pull-behind, push spreader, hand-cranked spreader, shovel, or broadcast by hand.

Use it with other soil products or as a stand-alone.

Buy it in bulk, by the bag, or make your own.

Join the ranks of progressive, thoughtful growers of all descriptions, and just try compost.

Are you watering with tap water?

City water contains chlorine and chlorine kills microbes – both good and bad.  Will watering plants with tap water kill the beneficial microbes delivered through compost use?

 

Chlorine, chloramine, fluoride, and salts are used to treat city and household water systems.  None of them are beneficial to plants, soils, or the microbial populations contained therein.

The good news is that if your city’s water system maintains chlorine at recommended levels, most plants won’t be harmed and soil/compost microbes will quickly recover.

Generally, chlorine also dissipates quickly.  Fill a 5-gallon bucket with tap water and let it sit for a day or two before using the water on plants.

Chloramine, a compound that includes both chlorine and ammonia, is a little harder on plants and soils.  It is used throughout the US, including a number of metropolitan areas served by McGill composting facilities.  Check out this list to see if your water system is among them.

Over time, chloramine use can acidify soil and damage plants.  If this chemical is running through your watering tap, keep an eye on soil pH.

Fluoride is added to drinking water supplies to strengthen teeth.  It is also found in some fertilizers and perlite.  Burned tips and edges of leaves can be a sign of fluoride toxicity.

Using compost to maintain a neutral pH will limit fluoride availability, as will switching to rainwater or filtered water.

Household systems designed to soften water using salts can damage soil and plants, too. 

Short of installing a new spigot in the H2O line before it reaches the water softener, adding calcium to the soil through applications of gypsum or lime can help.  So does simple leaching (over-saturating the soil to flush out excess salts). 

But know that leaching will also wash away nutrients.  If you opt for this method, be sure to add some compost post-watering to help rebuild the soil.

Collecting rainwater and mixing it with tap water can dilute the harmful impacts of chemicals and salts.

For home use, rainwater harvesting systems can be as simple as a $5 bucket sitting in the yard or as sophisticated as a $2500 tank set-up.

Just make sure water in open-top collection containers is not allowed to stagnate and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Want more information about using tap water for watering plants?  We found this article that discusses the various chemicals used in water treatment and how they impact plants and compost.

FAQ:  What causes acid soil and how can I fix it?

The leaching action of rainwater, CO2 from organic decomposition, and oxidation of constituents in fertilizers all contribute to the formation of acid soil.

While some plants, like rhododendrons and blueberries, prefer an acid soil, most do not.  But acid soil can be fixed.

Back in the day, grandpa may have added lime or wood ash to fix the soil.  Today’s growers, however, are more likely to add compost.

With its neutral pH, compost makes an ideal amendment for both acidic and alkaline soils.

Get it tested

Don’t guess.  Test your soil at least once every three years.  Keep copies of those test results so you can monitor soil changes over time.

Pull a sample for testing through your local Cooperative Extension Service office or buy a kit.  Sample several locations, then mix together.

Do not use a metal trowel, shovel, or bucket to do your sampling unless you are certain it is stainless steel.  Some metals can react with the soil and distort results.  For the same reason, don’t use painted tools, either.  Plastic will be the better choice.

An inexpensive meter will also get the job done and costs about the same as testing or a DIY kit.

Find the Goldilocks zone

A pH range of 6.0 to 7.0 is considered ideal.  (Acidic soils are on the low of the range; alkaline soils are on the high end.)

For overall soil and plant health, keep pH readings in the Goldilocks zone.

But if you want to match specific crops to their ideal pH, this article includes pH preferences for many common vegetable crops.  For ornamentals, check out this chart.

Sorry, but there’s no quick fix for soil pH

It takes time to adjust soil pH.  Experts say if you’re able to nudge the number .5 to 1 point in a season you’re doing a good job.

It takes at least three weeks for early results.  Making a start in the fall for spring planting is even better.

If you make your own compost, pH testing prior to soil incorporation can be a good idea.  The specific ingredients in your compost will influence pH.

The same is true for commercial compost products.  Compost manufacturers will provide copies of their product testing results, which should include pH.  If these types of analyticals are not available, either choose another product or test it yourself.

If you have a choice, and your soils are slightly acidic, opt for the compost product that leans toward the alkaline.  If your soil is more alkaline, choose a compost with a lower pH number.

In addition to compost, you can also add things like coffee grounds (acidic) and baking soda (alkaline) to either the compost or the soil to shift pH levels. 

FAQ:  What is the best garden soil to buy?

The best garden soil you can purchase isn’t soil at all, but compost.  Adding compost to your existing soil is actually cheaper than buying soil, and it offers so much more than dirt.

As little as 1/8 to 1/4 inch of compost incorporated into the top layer of soil adds organic matter, nutrients, beneficial microbes, etc.  

But for a real power punch and some beautiful soil, add compost at a ratio of 1 inch or so of compost for every 3 inches of native soil and mix thoroughly.  Use no more than 30% compost in that four-inch layer of enriched garden soil.

However, since most garden plants need at least 12 inches of soil for good root development, you will need to consider adding at least 3 inches of compost to 9 inches of existing soil to achieve 12 inches of amended soil.

To help with your garden planning, we found this article with a chart that includes root depths for common vegetables and herbs.

NOTE:  If adding compost to a container or raised bed, hold the compost to 25% of the soil-compost mix.