Compost 101

We are eating some fantastic vegetables lately! Eat a bunch of Brian’s carrots and you will never again be able to snack on a grocery store carrot and be satisfied. They are like two completely different vegetables. One is sweet and tasty and tender; the other is chemically-tasting roughage in comparison. Why such a big difference?

One of the main reasons is the quality of the soil they were grown in! Commercial crops are produced on a large scale by using pesticides and herbicides to kill pests and weeds. But when these chemicals are applied, they also kill off all the good stuff in the soil. Chemical fertilizers are then added which can boost nitrogen levels and make the plants grown vigorously but this doesn’t restore life to the soil. At that point the vegetables are being grown in dirt — the kind you sweep off your kitchen floor — instead of rich, living soil with all the minor nutrients required to make a fully flavorful vegetable.

Alternatively, in organic farming, we weed by hand instead of using herbicides. And we rely heavily on compost to boost levels of beneficial soil microbes. Compost is amazing! It can be created from a variety of materials. The point is to provide the perfect environment for soil microbes to live and break down the materials into humus.

The two base ingredients are “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings or food waste), and “browns” (carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves or wood shavings). Here on the farm we have been spending a good amount of time building Betsey’s compost pile, a delicious layer cake of horse manure (“green”) and straw (“brown”). The other critical components are proper moisture and airflow to provide the aerobic bacteria a happy little home. You’ll know they are working away in your pile by checking the temperature. It gets super hot in there! After a year or so, as long as the balance is right and the pile is turned over a couple times, you will have compost.

When we grow crops in our soil, we suck nutrients out of the land. Therefore we need to add organic matter back in if we expect to continue producing good food from that space. Luckily we can create compost from various waste produts. Instead of disposing of food scraps, manure, etc, we can enlist our microbe friends to compost them into beautiful rich humus we can use to add more nutrition and flavor to our food.

Today, the other apprentices and I picked the first sugar snap peas of the season and snacked on a few while we weighed them out into half-pint containers to put out for our CSA members at our farmstand. This is real food, straight from the ground to the plate, and you can taste the difference!