Composting: from fork to farm

I write a series titled Farm to Fork detailing her visits to local farms and could not resist the pun reversal. When I was a child I was encouraged to throw my apple core onto the dirt - a thrill for a city child. My Borden - compost container on countergrandparents taught me to take the byproducts of cooking and feed them back into the soil. Every two or three days a bowl - of eggshells, mussel shells, onion skins, zucchini ends, apple cores, lettuce ends, etc. - was dumped on a pile of weeds and leaves. Once a summer my sister and I would be instructed to “turn” the pile over onto an adjoining space. After a full winter the two-year-old compost would be spread back onto the garden. This is the system we use in our garden today.

According to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Generation Report (2008) the average person throws away 4.5 pounds of trash per day. Of that trash, 12.7 percent is food scraps, 13.2 percent is yard trimmings, and 31 percent is paper - which means that 56.9 percent of our trash can be composted. Composting removes that waste from landfills, reduces air pollution from burning the debris, and improves the soil - it is a win-win.

There are several different ways to deal with food scraps, each one appropriate for whatever space or time constraints you have: cold composting, hot composting and vermiculture. The point of composting is to allow organisms (bacteria, microbes, worms, etc.) to break down organic matter into humus. Humus is the finished stable product of composting and is wonderful fertilizer. Cold composting is for those with a lot of space, time and little desire to futz with the pile. It is what my grandparents did and what I do. It does not look very attractive, but is very easy and is manna from heaven for plants.Borden - cold compost pile

If you are inclined to create a hot compost pile in your garden you will need a container that allows airflow and maneuverability, because you will be turning the contents every 5-7 days to allow in oxygen. The ideal ratio of carbon (brown dead material: wood chips, shredded cardboard, sawdust, shredded newspapers, etc.) to nitrogen (green recently live material: weeds, meal waste, grass clippings, etc.) is 25:1, which usually equates to 2 parts brown material to 1 part green material. Hot composting is the method whereby the pile is constructed all at once and monitoring of the moisture content is necessary to make sure that it does not get too wet or too dry. There are many containers available in the market place to make it easier to compost this way. Kevin Dorn recently spoke about this in his community post.

The method I was the most excited to learn about during my Master Gardener Class was vermiculture. Vermiculture is the practice of worm composting, which can be done inside in a rubber container. It is perfect if you live without access to an outside space. I was very curious to learn more and thrilled when I met the ladies in charge of the The Worms Do It at the Plymouth Green fair.

Yes, I could have constructed the worm composting system myself. I could have schlepped to a store, purchased a large rubber container, drilled holes in it, ordered some red wiggler worms online or visited a bait store, but I chose not to. I bought one ready-made from their booth at the fair and talked a friend into doing the same thing. The more I spoke to the founders of The Worms Do It the happier I am to support their mission.Borden - worms from composting

The Worms Do It was the brainchild of three friends: Laurie Williams, Kari Bergers and Mandy Stanford. Stanford tells me they formed “in an effort to make the environment that surrounds our neighborhood cleaner” for their children. The three ladies live in subdivisions that do not allow outdoor composting and were concerned by the methane generated from landfills because it was affecting the quality of air at their local elementary school. Methane is more detrimental to the environment than carbon and is formed when organic matter is broken down in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen, the opposite of composting).

The Worms Do It provide everything you need to get going and even include a food-safe trowel to move the contents around. Stanford advises the best way to approach vermiculture: “Think of the worms as pets, feed them a specific amount daily, keep them moist and their bed comfortable with lots of bedding. When the time comes to clean their beds out and put new in, instead of throwing it out as waste you have the most nutrient rich food for your plants you can get. Wow! And it doesn't go into the landfill, double Wow!” Borden - the worms do it booth

The Worms Do It started last spring and they are regulars at the Northville Farmers Market and the Dearborn Farmers Market. Since they have started, “the interest has been overwhelming,” says Stanford, “Our vision for The Worms Do It is what it has always been from the start, for every household in our town, in our state, in our country to have a worm bin. Let's start giving back to the place we call home so our kids and their kids will have a beautiful, healthy environment to grow up in. It's never too late.”

It is never too late - and it can be entertaining as well, as my friend shows in this video with her daughter.

Here is a link to the article on annarbor.com.

Highlights from my Master Gardener class, a pause before volunteering

Have you ever called the MSU hotline with plant questions? Or sent in to the MSU extension mysterious creatures from your sheets you think are bed bugs?Then you have communicated with the legions of MSU extension Master Gardener [MG] volunteers.

Last week we finished our 12 classroom lessons, and the second half of the class focused on the myriad opportunities available in the community to complete our 40 hours of volunteering necessary to become certified.

Borden - Forsythia blooming

Presentations were given by over 20 people outlining ways in which we could help in the community. The formal native plant garden (recreating original prairie conditions) at the Furstenberg Nature Center has MG volunteers. Volunteers help with the controlled burns Ann Arbor does to reduce invasive species in the parks.

The 4-H Junior Master Gardener Program is run by MG volunteers. Open to all 9- to 11-year-old residents of Washtenaw County, the six-week class covers soil, plant science, vegetables, yards and garden pests, flowers and woody plants and lawn. The class has a 10 hour volunteer component to “help kids discover that gardening is a fun activity, and volunteering is an important part of being a good citizen in the community." If you are interested, contact Cindy Fischer, 734-222-3948. From my own experience with the adult class, it sounds like a wonderful time.

As I look over my notes from the adult class, I feel in awe of the knowledge, devotion and excitement of my teachers. Here are some of the highlights from the 12 weeks of class that particularly stick with me.

From Plant Science

“The only thing to worry about with plant cells is whether the temperature goes below 28 degrees. The rigid cell wall breaks open with the expanding water.” This is why this year I have rarely watered my lettuce seedlings growing outside under plastic; we will see what happens.

Borden - Lettuce seeds under plastic

“Plants grow at nighttime; they use the sunlight and build tissues at night." This is why nighttime temperatures are so important for ripening tomatoes - a good reason to cover with plastic.

“Apples emit ethylene gas - a hormone that causes ripening." Now I know why people keep their apples in a separate bowl on the counter away from the other fruit.

From Soil Science

“Fertilizer burning happens when the excess salt pulls the water out of the roots - dehydrating the plants." Ah ha! The term “burn" explained.

From Tree Fruit

“No matter what you do to augment the soil, it will return to its native state in three to five years." This is a good motivator to keep on pouring compost tea on our vegetables every year and continue to mulch.

“Honeybees come from Greece. Bumblebees are native and sit on their eggs like a chicken," What a fascinating image.

From Household Pests

“The flour sifter was originally invented to sift out bugs," and to continue the history lesson, “in farms, the pig tail with fat attached was kept to grease the pans - you would hold the tail and rub the pan." Think of that next time you reach for the Pam.

“Wasps don’t have night vision. Don’t spray them during the day. Creep up without a flashlight and hit the nest with a full can of insecticide at night." Your skin will thank you.

From Plant Health Care

As I discussed in my full article, resistance to pesticide will happen, the “goal of Integrated Plant Management is to slow this development."

From Indoor Plants

Transplanting plants into pots that are too big is a problem because there is “too much moisture in the soil for the plant to use. You only want to go up to a container 1-2 inches wider." I did not know this rule when I transplanted my jade plants - so now I water them rarely to make up for my original misstep.

From Small Fruit Culture

“Bugs have a hard time feeding on a healthy plant because the sap pressure is so high it is like feeding from a fire hose." Reminds me of the Gary Larson cartoon of the mosquito hitting an artery.

From Woody Ornamentals

“Eight-five percent of the time, the soil is the reason why bugs and diseases develop." Yet another good reason to do a soil test, “because once the tree is in the ground, it is too late."

From Lawn Turf Class

“Turf is a $1.8 billion industry in the United States." To give you some perspective, the GDP of Haiti in 2008 was $6.95 billion.

“Leaving grass clippings on the lawn replaces one application of nitrogen fertilizer and does not contribute to lawn thatch. The only way to ameliorate lawn thatch is to use an aeration machine to core the soil, introducing air which allow in microorganisms which will eat and reduce the thatch."

Not growing up with a lawn, or having one now, it was nice to learn why sometimes I see pierced lawns and why.

From Composting

Borden - Blooming lettuce

“Anywhere from 17 to 24 percent of Michigan solid waste can be composted." I worked with landfills, and I don’t think that is a permanent solution to our waste needs. So, until the day that we figure out a better system, putting less trash into landfills seems to be a worthwhile endeavor, especially since composting can be very easy.

I utilize the “cold composting" method, which involves dumping our kitchen scraps (no protein), grass clippings, etc. on a pile and turn once a year. The important ratio is two parts brown to one part green in order to have the right carbon to nitrogen ratio.

Another wonderful element in the Master Gardener Class was the student sharing. One student shared in the compost class that her neighbor lost a house from storing grass clippings inside trash bags in the garage, and they burst into flames. A former firefighter in the class shared that leaves kept in a black trash bag can cause spontaneous combustion from steam forming and super-heating the grass. This is why farmers do not roll and store wet hay.

As I scratch my head over the many volunteering options, I am so glad I participated in this wonderful program offered to us as residents of Michigan. Though the formal learning is complete, I know this is the beginning of my Master Gardener experience.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Master Gardener: pesticide science

I recently took Oprah’s Test Your Food IQ online quiz. It is five questions about food choices, food miles, pesticides, and antibiotics in animals. Such quizzes remind me of a constant choices I make as a food consumer when I vote with my wallet. Especially in the pesticide debate.

Borden - Lettuce in the garden

In my recent Master Gardener class "Integrated Plant Management," I learned some of the science behind pesticide classification and pesticide toxicity. Whether synthetic, natural or organic-certified - all pesticides have certain elements in common. All pesticides are selecting for resistant bugs and are tested on animals.

Pesticides kill pests. A pest is anything that has caused damage or has the ability to cause damage to agriculture (backyard gardens to 100-acre farms). Insects, mites, fungus, bacteria, plants, rodents, slugs, birds, eggs or vertebrates all fall under this umbrella - depending to whom you are speaking.

Given enough time, all of our current poisons will be obsolete because the pest population will have adapted resistance to them. Our teacher defined resistance as, “genetic selection in response to exposure to cultural, biological and chemical control methods.” This genetic development to outwit extinction is not a question of if; it is a question of when. Mother nature will work around whatever controls we think are necessary.

So that is one side of the pesticide argument - that we are breeding resistant pests. Another side of the pesticide argument is the toxicity to humans. Acute toxicity from pesticides is expressed as LD50 (lethal dose 50) or LC50 (lethal concentration 50). When scientists were testing this item (pesticide or otherwise) on animals, 50 percent of them died. LD50 values are expressed as ratio of mg/kg or ppm. The lower the LD50 the higher the toxicity. For example, sugar has a LD50 of 29,700 mg/kg and Botox has a LD50 of 0.000001 mg/kg.

Borden - LD50 definition

Here is the fun part. When they were testing pesticides on rats (animal testing is a whole other conversation) up to ten years ago, scientists only used male rats because the estrus cycle of female rats changed the numbers. So a toxin with an LD50 that was calculated more than 10 years ago does not apply to women. Hmmmm... Recently they have stopped using rats and started to use pigs - because their gastrointestinal track more accurately replicates that of a human - and are testing both male and female species. (editors note: I recently was contacted by a gentleman from the EPA who tells me that testing is done on all sorts of animals, both male and female, and has been since the 70s.)

Our teacher’s voice boomed across the classroom again and again throughout the class: “Chemical control is the last resort! Just because a pesticide is 'natural' does not mean it is safe!" We saw pictures of using fire torches to kill potato bugs in the fields (it retards the growth of the plant by a week). He talked about using boiling water to remove unwanted weeds from your driveway. We spoke about changing the expectations for what consumers will accept in the grocery store.

The key is for us, as consumers, to change our threshold for what we will buy from commercial growers. According to Oprah’s IQ test and the dirty dozen, apples have an incredible amount of pesticides - growers think no one will purchase an apple with blemishes or worms in it. I disagree; I purchased no-spray apples at the Westside Farmers Market last summer and learned to eat around the worms. We need to shift our threshold for what we think our food should look like.

As I learn more about pesticides, I certainly will.

Here is the link to the annarbor.com article!

Master Gardener Program: Tree fruits

Michigan grows great tree fruit. I was reminded of this fact this summer when extolling to a MI native how much I love cherry season. “What kind of cherries are you getting?”

“The red ones.”

“What variety?”

I looked at him uncomprehendingly. When I grew up in Washington DC we would be able to find red cherries for about a week. My mother dealt them out like gold.

So perhaps learning about Tree Fruit Culture in my Master Gardener Volunteer Program will help me become a bit more adept in the world of bountiful Michigan tree fruits.

According to my reading, Michigan’s growing prowess comes down to the “lake effect,” sandy soils, and good sun. The large bodies of water that surround the mitten moderate the weather patterns throughout the year, reducing the severity of cold spells and lessening the chance of frost injury in the spring. The high elevation of the best fruit-growing regions also make a difference in the springtime: in areas such as Bainbridge Township, land north of Grand Rapids, Romeo, and much of Leelanau Peninsula (I immediately think of American Spoon Fruit’s Leelanau Apricot Preserves).

As many of you might know, there is a whole host of insects and diseases that love fruit trees and there seems to be an endless list of fungicides and insecticides that are listed as effective. The variety of pesticides put on trees is one of the many reasons why apples, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and pears are listed in the Dirty Dozen.

The key to success in fruit trees seems to be choosing a variety, or cultivar, that has flower buds able to survive cold temperatures in the wintertime (and resistance to diseases). It is also recommended that you determine whether or not you are going to plant more than one for your home garden. Peach trees will self-pollinate, but apples need more than one within a 2 mile proximity for the bees (crabapple trees may pollinate apples as well). The pollen of fruit trees is heavy and sticky and will not be carried by the wind, unlike corn pollen.

If you are concerned about your fruit being a mix between a McIntosh and a Golden Delicious if you plant two of them close together, never fear! The fruit of a McIntosh tree will yield McIntosh apple, the seeds are a mix between the two. As a result, most fruit trees are grafted because seedlings of trees will vary in their characteristics and the consumer wants a consistent McIntosh (for example). If it is in your backyard, you might be less mindful of such restraints and perform a mini-Mendel pea experiment for your own enjoyment. (Make sure you do not have a lot of dandelions blooming, the bees will go for them and leave your fruit tree alone!)

That is, you can experiment with crossbreeding of fruit trees if you plan to be in that house for a long time. It takes about 3 to 8 years for the tree to establish itself before it will yield fruit. They can be active for up to 60 years.

The grafting of fruit trees is a well-accepted practice in commercial orchards to ensure consistency of fruit. (I will make a small aside here that plant cloning has been going on in our food world for years, and it doesn’t seem to be a big topic of ethical discussion, unlike animal cloning). Another thing that adds to commercial growers high yields is the practice of thinning, where in June they thin out the immature fruit to ensure consistency of yields from year to year and health of final harvest. Commercial fruit growers often use a chemical to thin the fruit - those of you at home can do it by hand.

Here is a great video I found of a nursery in Australia showing the grafting process. I like hearing her voice talk about mango trees in the middle of our winter. (Here is the link to the article in annarbor.com)

Master Gardener Program begins: Plant Science

Until I took Art History walking through museums was an exercise in futility and irritation. “Why are pictures of a soup label art?" “Why is this painting of a bunch of people huddled around a candle eating potatoes worth so much money?"

Borden - hosta in the garden for the MG description

After learning Art History, museums became more fun as I understood the context and the vocabulary of what I was seeing.I am hopeful the same thing will happen in gardens and arboreta when I finish the Master Gardener (MG) course I am taking this winter through the MSU extension.According to the introduction, the “aim of the Master Gardener Volunteer Program is to provide the citizens of the state with research-based information and technical assistance in gardening and horticulture through the use of qualified volunteers trained by MSUE.” Considering that one of my references was called three times and they requested a criminal history background check, this is a duty the MSUE volunteers take very seriously. As the second part of becoming qualified as a MG is volunteering 40 hours in the community, I am thrilled to be screened thoroughly.

It bears repeating that most things we eat, or drink, or wear come from plants, or creatures who have eaten plants, or creatures who have eaten creatures who have eaten plants, etc, etc, etc. Knowing the scientific framework behind the tapestry of flora that enables us to live on this planet seems to me a worthy endeavor. In the interests of sharing, I am going to describe parts of the lessons so we all can learn new things together over the next few months.

Borden - Red tree at Kripalu

Our first assignment is to read the chapter on Plant Science which begins with an outline that causes my English Major brain to jump out of my ears and run to the door, for example: 5.c. Cotyledons (part of a seed not a primordial mammoth). Thankfully once past the outline, seed botany is very straightforward (there are a lot of pictures). For example, the endosperm contains the nutrients for the seed to start a new life, including oils. A lot of the flavor in food comes from oil or fat, one of the reasons why whole grains (or bacon) have more of an impact on your taste buds.

Non-flowering plants (like Christmas trees with exposed pine cones) are called gymnosperms, from the Greek “gymnos” meaning naked. That is fun one to think about next time you are playing basketball at the gym.

Plants have cuticles that protect them from water loss, whereas the human cuticle protects us from bacteria. Plants have pores that open and close to regulate gas exchange. Despite the scene in James Bond where the gold painted woman dies of asphyxiation, human pores have nothing to do with gas exchange. Like earthworms, each flower contains both female and male reproductive parts. One of the leaf shapes I know I will be able to remember easily because I have that shape in our kitchen: Spatulate.

I continue reading and imagine biologists in their white coats culturing the tissue of the perfect McDonalds potato. No chance the company is going to leave the propagation of their staple to the open-pollination of bees, too much is at stake.

In addition to Plant Science future classes include: Soils, Flower Gardening, Woody Ornamentals, Vegetable Culture, Lawn Care, Small Fruit Culture, Tree Fruit Culture, Plant Health Care, Indoor Plants, Composting, Managing Wildlife, Poisonous Plants, and Household Pests. I look forward to seeing which one we tackle next!

Here is the article on annarbor.com