Spring time is Garden Time

The Gardening season is pretty late this year. Although some early plants (lettuce, radishes, carrots) have been in the ground for almost a month, nothing is showing at the surface yet. The only green I have in my garden is last fall’s onions and garlic, and a heck of a lot of chickweed (where does that stuff come from?). But this last weekend was warm and sunny, so much untended garden was now tended to.

We had a lot of well-digested compost, so I spent much of Sunday hauling it out, spreading it, then cutting and raking it in. Fun stuff, but working with well-worn compost is much more pleasant than working with manure, and there is some satisfaction in using the free fertilizer that might have otherwise gone to the curb, not to mention giving the few remaining worms their freedom.

? This year we are starting our Cukes, Tomatoes, Zucchini and Peppers inside, instead of buying young plants. Many of the tomatoes are last year’s seeds. We also collected carrot seeds last year, along with fennel and coriander, although we have actually eaten most of the last two…

The spring is also weeding time, as we slowly wage war against the creeping buttercup and blue bells. There are places in our back yard where you turn over the soil and hit a layer about 8” down of solid bulbs. I’m sure the flowers were beautiful at one point, but now they are just voracious, crowd everything else out, and create this non-permeable layer that hurts the yard’s drainage, leading to moss in what is generally really sandy, well-drained storage. Here is The iCandy using an oversized tool for an oversized job.

Some of the weeds are going in the Green Cone. The weather is starting to warm up, and the sun is getting longer in the day, so the cone is getting warm and the digestion has noticeable sped up. The water glass here was hardly boiling, but the fact the Breadwinner would rest her drinking glass on it is proof that the digester doesn’t smell.

A look inside, and you can see the Cone Salad is a not-unhealthy mix of bones, breads, and weeds.

I’m not ready to declare the Green Cone a success or a failure: it seems to me that the material did not digest at the rate I would expect over the winter, we will see if the summer heat helps before I make a decision on this thing. Regardless, all of the bones and breads we have tossed in the last 5 months have gone into this thing, along with quite a few weeds, and we are no-where near full yet, or even over the top of the “basket” level, which is what I would consider functionally full. Jury’s out on the Green Cone, more to come.

I am clearly an amateur at gardening, and I really need to start reading up on it to improve my yields, but the learn-as-you go thing has some appeal. The only part of my garden that I really understand are the rocks in it. Most of them are samples from my Masters thesis, where I mapped some Cretaceous sedimentary rocks on the Gulf Islands. Others are rocks I just picked up in my travels, because they were nice looking, or they had some significance.

Click to Geologic-size

This pic from my front yard has (A) a big hunk of clearly fully-marine upper Comox Formation sandstone with a big oyster fossil in it, from the vicinity of Sidney Island; (B) a smaller piece of Comox where it is it more estuarine or marginal marine, with a well-preserved fern impression, probably 95-odd million years old, from Brethour Island; (D) a big piece of Eocene Cedar Formation basalt or andesite, from Merritt BC, where there were large shield volcanoes around 50 million years ago; and (D) a hunk of ugly Extension formation fosiliferous pebble conglomerate from Piers Island.

But I like this rock even more. It is a piece of sandstone from Sidney Island, Comox Formation, probably 95 Million years old or so. But notice the funny weathering pattern on the surface? Is isn’t only on the surface but runs through the entire rock, and it is a “trace fossil”, referred to as Macaronichnus segregatis. Yes, “segregated macaroni-tubes”. But it isn’t just the fossil name I like, I like this trace because it is diagnostic.

M. segregatis is made by polychete worms, colloquially “bloodworms”, as they sift through the sand on the wet part of the beach, sucking biofilm sustenance off of the quartz and feldspar grains while preferentially avoiding the micas and other dark grains, leaving very faint “tubes” of quartz and feldspar surrounded by micas, which differentially weather and stick out like a sore thumb. Or like a bowl of spaghetti. We can see modern polychetes doing this on beaches today. What is cool about this is that these animals are specialists; they are one of the few animals happy to be living in the high-energy “swash zone” of the beach. So when you find M. segregatis, you always know you have found the fossil beach deposits. That means the rocks conformably above it are always fully marine in a transgressive regime (rising sea levels) or are terrestrial in a regressive regime (falling sea levels). When someone asks a sedimentologist how he knows where the beach was 95 million years ago, he can say “Macaronichnus segregatis, my friend”. If he finds some handy cross-beds nearby, he can even point at which direction the sea was. Presuming, of course, some jerk in the intervening 95 million years hasn’t picked the rock up and used it as a corner piece in his rock garden.

Spring has sprung, and a middle-aged man’s mind turns to geology…

Green Cone Update.

When I last talked about the Green Cone, it was rapidly filling up with food waste, and the temperature was dropping, neither of these good for promoting the initial growth of the friendly dudes that break the waste down.

With my month away, obviously the input stopped completely. However, with the month away, I have no idea what the weather was like while I was gone. Oh, maybe I do.

Seems to me the most relevant stat maintained by Environment Canada would be the “Heat Degree Days”. This is completely non-empirical, but when the HDD gets up into the high teens or 20s (like the cold snap in November), then it seems it will be a little cold for the green cone to digest efficiently. Conversely, when the HDD is down in the single digits, we are getting into a realm where bugs can proliferate and the blue fuzz starts to grow in the cone.

Looking in the last few days, there is definitely a good blue fuzz going on which means the breakdown is happening. When open, there isn’t much sign of the nasty smell we had happening in the fall when the food waste was overwhelming the cone’s breakdown speed. Looks like the Cone is finally working as hoped.

From this point forward, the only things going in the Cone are non-vegetable matter, bread scraps, or either of the above so tainted by meat, fat or milk that I can’t stick them in the compost.   

Also, after the initial exploratory digs, it appears whatever wanted to dig around the cone has lost interest. The raccoon/skunk/neighbour’s cat test has been passed. Or the offending digger has gone south for the winter. So let’s call it a provisional pass until Spring has sprung.

As for the compost, my worms have survived the deep freeze. I was doing some aerating on the compost pile, and found massive clumps of red wrigglers in spots. So many that I was able to share some with another NWEP TrashTalker whose compost didn’t do so well over the holidays.  

Green Cone Math

I’m not sure why I am being drawn into this…but an anonymous commenter has challenged the sustainability of the Green Cone, because it is made of plastic. It is a silly non-sequitur, and a bit of a strawman,, and it seems to be coming from a drive-by troll, but our purpose is to educate…

According to Metro Vancouver’s waste surveys, 40% of household waste (by mass) is compostable organics. That means, of the average Metro Vancouver household’s 834kg of annual garbage, about 334kg is organic material that will compost. Notably, some organics, like fabrics and leather, do not readily compost, so they are not included in this 40%, nor are things like paper that do compost, but are classified under “recyclables”.

Read that again. The “average” Metro Vancouver household puts a third of tonne of compostables to the curb every year.

The vast majority of the rest of what goes to the curb is recyclable through the blue-box program or through the City’s recycling centre. Therefore, through recycling and composting, we can significantly reduce the amount of trash that goes to landfill or WTE. Every kilogram of trash we divert from the garbage truck, we save tax dollars used to pay tipping fees to dispose of the trash, we save the expense of moving garbage about, we reduce the need to burn diesel, we reduce the negative environmental impacts of trash incinerators and landfill leachate, we save landfill space. So can we agree that indiscriminately throwing trash to the curb is not a sustainable activity?

However, not all compostable organics are suited for the back-yard garden composter. Things like meat, bones, milk products, and fat get really stinky as they rot, and attract rats and other pests. They also encourage the production of methane, or sulphur compounds that we generally want to avoid both for the ecosystem of the compost, and for greenhouse gas reasons. Weeds like chickweed or creeping buttercup, when placed in your garden compost, will spread to new areas of your garden when you apply the compost. Therefore, the traditional backyard compost (where most of my kitchen scraps go) is unsuited for these wastes.

We have three options to manage this stuff not suited for the traditional garden compost:

Option 1: We put it in our new Clean Green Organics bin, provided by the City. The City then takes this material and ships it to a commercial composting company. There the material is shredded and composted in a high-oxygen environment, to reduce the production of methane and sulphur gasses, and is made back into commercial-grade compost, used mostly in parks and other City gardens. The reason the City does this is simple: they pay about half the tipping fees for this material than they do for “regular” garbage going to the landfill or incinerator. Therefore, your garbage utility tax goes down.

Option 2: We throw it in the trash with everything else. It then either ends up in the landfill or at the trash incinerator. At the landfill, it starts to rot very quickly, so we bury it fast to keep the smell and all down. Once buried, the bacteria that do the rotting deplete the mass of oxygen very quickly, and anaerobic processes take over. This causes acidification of the fluids, and makes the residual metals and manufactured hydrocarbons in the waste much more bioavailable (“toxic”), and much more mobile. We call that stuff “leachate”. We need to spend a bunch of money and resources trapping and treating the leachate so it doesn’t kill fish, birds, people, etc. If it goes to the incinerator, it introduces a bunch of water, sulphur, and trace metals to the fuel cycle, leading to less efficient combustion, and more technical difficulty preventing the production of things like dioxins and furans. These things can be managed, but only with the expenditure of money and resources. Therefore, either way, your garbage utility tax goes up.

3: we do what Conservatives always suggest: we take personal responsibility for our own situation, and instead of relying on the “nanny state” or the “suffering taxpayer”, we simply install a Green Cone in our back yard and throw the small proportion of organics that would foul our composter into there instead. We remove the personal need for Clean Green Organic waste collection, we reduce the collective need for expensive incinerators or landfill technology, we save the poor, beleaguered taxpayer money.

All for the price of about 10kg of plastic. Oh, and the Green Cone is made of 100% recycled plastics, and is 100% recyclable with today’s plastic recycling technology. “Anonymous” suggested it would be destroyed by the sun within 8.3 years, but it is guaranteed for 10 years, and there are many of them out there in the world that have been functional for more than 20 years.

Again, I like the math of the Green Cone. It looks good on paper. However, part of the purpose of my having one is to evaluate how useful and practical it really is. I will report back.

Green cone update.

We have had the Green Cone in the ground for a little less than a month now. Still waiting.

For the first week or two, we threw all of our kitchen scraps into the Cone: vegetables meat, bones, and a bit of garden weeding. Mostly, I wanted to build a little “reservoir” of waste for the bacteria, nematodes, worms, or whatever to start eating. I sprinkled some starter on every once in a while. It didn’t take long until the “basket” was more than half full, so we cut back to only non-compostables (meat, cheese, etc.), and started throwing the veggie waste back into our garden compost. From this point forward, the plan is to only use the Cone for stuff we don’t want in our composter (stinky stuff like meat, and weeds we collect from the garden that we don’t want in our new soil)

Apparently heat is our friend, and that is why the recommend placing for the cone is in a sunny spot. Unfortunately, we were loading the cone during a week of near-record cold. Temps dipped to the negative double digits, and there was snow on the ground. These seem like less-than-ideal conditions for digestion of the waste, so we may have to wait a bit before we see the volume of material go down. But something is happening, as there is some warmth when you open the Cone to fill it, and snow did not accumulate on the Cone even after a week of really cold temperatures. There is also visible condensation on the Cone on moist mornings. There is no smell next to the closed Cone, and only a hint of garbage smell when you stick your head into the gaping maw of the open Cone.

This morning, we had the first evidence that our regularly scheduled evening visitors have noticed the Cone. A few of the rocks I placed around the cone have been displaced, and something (either our local resident raccoon clan or our local resident skunk) did a little exploratory dig along the side of the cone. The plastic wall and the lip at the bottom of the Cone quickly frustrated them. If I know anything about skunks and raccoons, they will dig a couple of times, and if not rewarded with food, they will file the Cone, stinky or otherwise, under “not a food source”, and stop noticing it. The cobble-sized rocks I put around it will probably help, as they really increase the digging effort. Hopefully they will be bored of the cone by the time the spring plants come up.

Hopefully it will warm up by then as well, and we will start to see some hot digestion action.

Adventures in Composting #1

Green Cone installed

I woke up this morning with an extra hour in the pocket, and found the sun shining. A day for raking leaves, cleaning up the garden, and installing a Green Cone.

As is increasingly common for those fortunate enough to have a yard, I have a compost system. Mine may be a little more complex than others, as you may see here:

In the centre is the two-box compost I built a couple of years ago with some wood and chicken wire. One side is always receiving new materials (non-stinky kitchen scraps, coffee grinds, vegetable cuttings, leaves, grass clippings, a bit of paper, etc), while the other sits fallow, letting the worms do their thing. The idea is that the worms and other soil-making invertebrates will migrate to wherever there is food, moisture, oxygen and warmth. I have an aerator stick I use to stir the fallow side occasionally (to keep things aerobic), and when the worms start to run out of food, they migrate over to the fresh food side.

Every couple of weeks, I take several pounds out of the bottom of the fallow side and stick it in the rolling composter to the right. I add water if it looks like it might need it, worms from the active side if the population looks small, and some fresh (by “fresh”, I mean really rotten and nasty) veggie food to get the worms going. As this bin gets stirred every couple of days, and it is a closed cell, the composting kicks up a notch. What comes out of it after a couple of weeks is nicely textured, and ready to go to the garden. As a bonus, the extra liquid collects in the reservoir underneath, and can be cut for use to fertilize indoor plants. Yum.

Often the production of compost exceeds my garden needs, so I have a little soil pile on the side, wrapped in plastic to keep the rain from leaching all the good nutrients out.

Then there is the space-ship-looking thing over to right. The Green Cone.

I found a fairly sunny part of the back yard, not “full sun”, but warm enough that the rosemary seems happy there, and close enough to the back door to be convenient, but hopefully about 2 fruit-fly-flights from the house, just in case. The first step of installation is digging a 2 ft deep hole with a radius of about 2 ft.

Back-of-the-envelope says 6 cubic feet of dirt weighs about 600lbs. This step took more time than I expected, and gave me a lot of time to contemplate a greater respect for gravediggers, and how mobsters in movies who tell people to dig their own graves must have a lot of spare time on their hands… but I digress.

Once the hole is dug, the rest of the installation took only a few spins of a phillips screwdriver. Once in the ground, the cone is much smaller than it looks prior to installation, much less like a spaceship, and doesn’t look too bad in the garden.

Ready for it’s first load of food.