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Why Compost?

The Mystery of ‘Black Gold’

What is compost anyway? Simply enough, compost is decomposed organic matter.  It can come from anything: leaves, pine needles, trees, food scraps, paper products, manure…anything that was once alive. It may look like dirt, but it’s anything but.

Compost is the result of the natural breakdown of matter to its basic chemical state. But compost doesn’t just happen with a pile of waste and a wish. The big pile of organic waste that you see is actually an entire ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes working hard to break down that organic matter into the dark, nutrient dense amendment farmers and gardeners cherish.  In one handful of compost you will hold more living organisms than there are people on earth. Pretty cool, huh?

The natural process of compost is one of the biggest forces in human life.  Think about a forest floor. The forest has the cool rich dark earth out of which spring the great evergreens and deciduous trees and bushes that teem with life.  Nobody goes out to water forests or giving the trees fertilizers but yet they thrive. How do they do this? Forests make their own compost, that’s how. Forests take in carbon and provide oxygen, without which humans would not be around. The compost the forest naturally makes actually feeds the forest that makes it, which completes a cycle from which humanity benefits.  Without the natural composting process, we wouldn’t be able to breath.

 So now I know what compost is, what can it do for me?

New Mexico soil is…well…dirty.  Dirt is not soil. Dirt is essentially finely eroded rock that contains no organic matter. Soil is living dirt: the mix of micro-organisms, water, air, insects, plants and minerals that make up the microecosystems that allow the healthy development of plants.  Adding compost to your existing soil will, over time, create or enhance the microecosystem in your yard or garden.  Sure, you can add chemical fertilizers and bagged nutrients and achieve some modicum of success with your tomatoes, but you will be left with dirt at the end of the growing season.  When you create a thriving living soil with compost the soil feeds itself.

A living soil that is built well, and regularly amended with compost, will create its own nutrient factory, so you will never need to use chemical fertilizers.  Even “organic” fertilizer solutions can have detrimental effects on your garden.  The influx of specific nutrients can create in imbalance of what your plants actually need.  Excess nutrients get leached through the soil and into the groundwater, creating a dangerous imbalance of nutrients in our environment.  The EPA says that “[n]utrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems,” and a large part of the nutrient pollution comes from chemical fertilizers. Compost added to soil, however, creates an environment where beneficial bacteria and fungus thrive and foster the needs of plants.

A healthy soil does more than feed plants.

Healthy soil regulates the flow of water and absorbs more water. Compost is like a fluffy sponge: it absorbs water and creates pockets in the soil for air and excess water to flow into.  This is great for your garden, lawn and your water bill.  It is also good for your community and your planet.  38% of freshwater use is used for irrigation in the United States, and the fresh water supply keeps dropping.  Adding compost to your garden or lawn will help substantially reduce your water use.

Healthy soil also plays a big role in carbon sequestration and pollution buffering. Living soils trap pollutants and the microorganisms in the soil go to work breaking down all the bad stuff. Don’t worry though, the bad stuff won’t end up in your tomatoes.  The bacteria and other organisms actually break the pollutants down to basic carbon: they are powerful little guys!

There are many other reasons to use compost in your soil: you divert waste from the landfill, reduce the carbon footprint and plastics involved in shipping bagged fertilizers, and maintain the micro-ecological balance of your community.

Our Newest Soilution? Coco Coir

Our Newest Soilution…Coco Coir!

Soilutions, Inc. is pleased to introduce the newest addition to our family of soils and amendments: Coco Coir.  Over the last decade coco coir has made its way into the hearts and minds of growers, gardeners and propagators in the United States (not to mention into the bags of potting soil on the racks of garden centers).  Now we are joining the party, in the most Soilutions of ways.  Bulk coco coir!

A Brief Introduction to Coco Coir

When we see coconuts in the grocery store, we only see about 50% of the fruit (technically a coconut is classified as a drupe: it is a fruit, a nut and a seed). The unseen 50% is what makes up the coir. During processing, three distinct materials take shape, but horticulturists are mostly interested in the pith, a grainy not quite woody material that resembles peat moss in texture.

coconut-structure

 

Coco Coir (pronounced Coy-eer) is the fibrous pith of coconut husks. Pretty simple.  It’s a natural byproduct of something we already love.  For decades horticulturists throughout India, Mexico, Sri Lanka and other equatorial climates where coconuts grow, have been using coco coir for a number of uses.  If you’ve ever bought a potted plant or a propagation tray, you’ve probably used coco coir already and never known it.

There are many reasons people love coco coir, but the basics are:

  • holds up to 9 times its weight in water
  • drains excess water so roots don’t drown
  • little to no compaction allows air flow and full, strong root development
  • totally neutral substrate, plant nutrition and amendments can be controlled
  • holds 22% oxygen even when fully compacted

An Eco-Friendly Potting Soil and Soil Conditioner

Coco coir is an abundant natural resource.  Each coconut tree can produce up to 150 coconuts annually, and coir has long been treated as a waste product. Some farms douse the coir piles in kerosene and burn them to dispose of unwanted coir.  But that was the past. Unlike peat moss which takes 10-15 years to regenerate, coco coir is generated with every coconut harvest. What once was waste is now a sought-after growing media.  Coco coir is nature’s way of upcycling.

Whether used as a soil conditioner or amendment to garden beds and raised beds, or used as an additive with mulch, coir can be part of the solution to water conservation here in the dry high desert. Because coco coir retains moisture without holding excess water, just a small amount added to your garden could reduce the frequency and length of your watering.

Coco Coir and Soilutions, Inc.

 Until now, the only way to get coco coir in New Mexico was in bagged amendments or compressed blocks.  Our coir will be available in bulk, fully rehydrated and rinsed.  Coir has always been expensive and labor intensive. We offer 3 blends of coco coir mediums designed for general needs:

Enchantment: a 50/50 blend of our nutrient dense compost and coco coir. Perfect for indoor and potted plants, or as an amendment for raised beds.

El Dorado: Coco coir and pumice, a great medium for hydroponic systems and controlled nutrient growing.

Vulcan Mix: Coir, compost, pumice, and red cinder designed specifically for native plants, succulents and for use as a sponge in the yard.

Of course, we offer just coco coir as is, or blended with your favorite compost and amendments for a soil that’s completely yours.  These are just some of the benefits of adding coco coir to your arsenal of soil solutions here in New Mexico. Keep checking back for more information on how coco coir can be used to help in your garden or greenhouse!

 

FAQ’s About Coco Coir:

What is coco coir (pronounced kȯi(-ə)r ; coy-eer)?

Coco Coir is the fibrous outer husk of a coconut. It is processed into fibers for textiles and pith for a growing medium.

What is coco coir used for?

There are many uses for coco coir.  It is commonly used as a seed starter in greenhouses and as medium for succulents and hydroponic gardening and farming. It is also found in many popular potting soil mixes.

Why use coco coir?

Coco coir acts like a sponge. Coco coir is able to absorb up to 9 times its weight of water but drains excess water efficiently. It does not compact easily, so the area in the root zone remains stable but makes water and nutrients available when the plants need them.

Is coco coir organic?

Yes.  Coco coir is all natural and no chemicals are used in processing. Soilutions, Inc. sources coco coir from an OMRI certified grower.

Is coco coir sustainable.

Yes.  Coir is made from parts of coconuts that generally go to waste. More coir is produced with every crop of coconuts grown, and until recently much of the coir in Southeast Asia was burned as a way to dispose of it. Many commercial products and growers are switching to coco coir because it is far more sustainable than peat moss.

 What is the pH of Coco Coir?

Coco coir has a neutral pH range of 5.2-6.8.  Variables such as amendments, nutrients, and even the water you use will change the pH.

What is the Electrical Conductivity of Coco Coir?

Our coco coir supplier lists the EC at .4 mS/cm. Our fully expanded coir is re-rinsed during the expansion process which may drain any remaining salts.  Because of the nature of the process there cannot be a static number.

What is Electrical Conductivity?

Soil electrical conductivity (EC) is a measure of the amount of salts in soil (salinity of soil). Too much salinity in soil can inhibit nutrient uptake, resulting in delayed plant development or nutrient starvation in plants even when nutrients are available.  EC levels are effected by many factors including water and fertilizers.

 Is Soilutions, Inc. coco coir buffered?

 No.  While many growers and manufacturers choose to buffer coco coir with a calcium / magnesium solution. Soilutions planting mixes that contain compost will naturally buffer the EC and increase the cation exchange capacity (the ability for the soil to retain nutrients in available forms).

 

Is There Such A Thing As Organic Compost?

Is There Such a thing as Organic Compost?

A friend of mine wanted me to address a question she fielded one day: “Is there really such a thing as organic compost?”

There are two kinds of organic: one is biological, one is a fabricated label. The former refers to  the carbon content of a material, the latter refers to the  method and the level of chemicals used in the growing process.

In terms of the biological sense, ALL compost is organic. It is the accelerated biological process by which microbes physically break down the biologically organic aspects of a material. But, as all things are a mixture of organic compounds and inorganic compounds (water for example is inorganic—it has no carbon; a tree is made of carbon, water, nitrogen, and minerals) there are inorganic residues in all composts. In the industry, we use  a test called the “organic matter” test to determine what percentage of the finished product is organic, what percentage is inorganic (minerals, i.e., “soil”–in other words, little particles of sand silt and clay.) so for this reason, NO composts are completely organic.

Confused yet?

As for the other type of organic, the one subject to labels and laws, there are certainly many ways to achieve that level of certification. It is the same process by which you certify your tomatoes–know the origin of everything you put into it. That means verify the “organic-ness” of  the feed for the animals that contribute the manure, verify the carbon source. In extreme cases, insist that the chainsaws used to cut the tree branches use organic vegetable oils rather than petroleum based oils. There are some materials that are specifically banned in “organic” composts–biosolids mainly but also construction glues and paint.  You then have to document it and submit those documents to the certifying organization for approval.

I think the bigger question should be directed towards the quality of the compost. It is well documented that compost is an excellent bio-remediator. It is used to clean contaminated soil, it is used to increase the infiltration properties of soil, it is used to increase the bio-diversity of the topsoil layer. But that same remediation property also pertains to the materials that go into it. The  microbes present in the compost pile don’t care if the carbon they are eating is a carbon from a certified organic tree or from petro-carbons (diesel fuel). If a pile is fully composted and cured and managed properly (the specifics of its ingredients were taken into account and the recipe tweaked accordingly) there will be every benefit to the soil, whether the initial ingredients were certified organic or not. By the same token, if a pile is built using only certified organic ingredients but mismanaged, not fully composted, nor cured, it could  prove temporarily detrimental to your over all project.

The decomposition of organic matter is going happen regardless of whether we want it to. Some areas of the world have the right environmental conditions to make this rapidly occur naturally. The southwest does not. Until we collectively reach a good balance of organic material in our soils, I think our time and energy should be spent correcting that imbalance. The semantics of whether it’s organic can come later

Chemical vs. Biological

Chemical vs. Biological

Last week I attended the annual Organic Farmers Conference held at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid. The conference offers a chance for me to see and thank the many local farmers that support us year ’round. I always feel humbled when farmers who, in my eyes, are rock stars, go out of their way to thank us and tell us how much they appreciate what we are doing. There is always plenty of good coffee and amazing snacks. This year we had fresh local organic bread with local organic fruit jams and jellies. Someone at the NMDA likes us because their placement of our table always ensures high traffic volume. And, I always strike up a fast friendship with the occupants of adjacent tables.

Over the years, lots of faces come and go, but there are those steady few that, year after year, plug away, doing what they love to do and, thus doing well. If you don’t think your dollar spent at the farmer’s markets is appreciated, I strongly suggest that you go to the conference next year and listen to their comments. everyone is grateful for the opportunity provide the community with fresh healthy food.

This year I found myself in the middle of a conversation with the director of the Rio Grande Community Farm. He is quite the experimenter; I first became involved with them when he was implementing a large scale no-till program at the farm. He is currently researching the benefits of high quality compost tea. I have known intuitively and seen anecdotally, through my professional career and personal endeavors, the benefits of compost tea and compost extract. For those that don’t know, a “tea” is a living, oxygenated brew of various ingredients, while an “extract” is not living, no longer oxygenated. One is a biological product, one is a chemical product. Most gardeners and farmers are concerned with the chemical makeup of the soil. Does it have sufficient nitrogen levels, what’s the pH, EC? These are chemical questions that can be chemically addressed. Not to be confused necessarily with chemicals, but rather the chemistry of the soil make up. Very important, to be sure, but not the only aspect of soil health and, I would argue, not the most important. Organic farmers are, generally, more concerned with a healthy soil (“A healthy soil grows healthy plants”) then are conventional farmers, but both are constantly analyzing, adjusting, and amending the chemical content of their soil. But when you talk of compost tea, you find that there is a strong biological aspect to the health of a crop. Each plant has a coating of protective microorganisms just as every human is covered with billions of germs. Each germ is keeping other germs in check. When our germ count is out of whack, we are sick. Same is true for the plants and soils. When we address biological issues with a chemical remedy, we find ourselves exacerbating the problem. “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…” She eventually end up swallowing a horse? and who-knows-what-else? in order to ameliorate a simple fly problem! I read in a recent New Yorker that the scientific world is starting to map germs. They are finding that the intestines of humans have very specific populations of germs. When an anti-biotic is prescribed, that balanced population is thrown into turmoil and it often takes weeks or months to recover. If we use those examples and apply them to food crops, the same holds true: a broad application of a general pesticide kills more beneficial micro-organisms than detrimental ones. Destructive micro-organisms always seem to be more opportunistic; the sudden absence of beneficial micro-organisms allows them to reproduce rapidly thus exacerbating the problem…

Harvesting Worm Compost

Harvesting Worm Compost

I was asked the other day if I had any pictures of my worm bin. After a resounding mental “DUH!”, I checked my photo back log and in fact hadn’t any younger than ’09. So I went out yesterday and screened my worms…had to do it anyway. Here’s my bin.

Walter's Worm Bin

It is an 8 foot hole, 12″ deep and lined with plywood that I scavenged from another project. I lined it with plywood so that the dirt wouldn’t fall back in. You don’t want dirt in your compost, any type of compost. Dirt is inorganic material and as such not subject to the processes of organic decomposition. You will want to add you compost to the soil when it is finished “cooking”. Kinda like whipped cream on a cake…you don’t bake the cake with the whipped cream, but rather add it to the whipped cream after you’re done baking it. It makes the cream so much better but would probably ruin it if you added it too soon. Anyway, back to the bin…you’ll notice I have a lid on mine. I use the lid for at least two reasons. One is to keep the dogs and the kids and the coyotes out. The other reason is that worms are photo-phobic; without the lid, the top portion of the material wouldn’t get eaten. And third (okay so there are three reasons) is that the lid keeps the sun off the bin, thus reducing evaporation. And here’s what the inside of my bin looks like.

If you look closely, you may notice that there is a lot of “raw” material on one side and not so much on the other. I do this to make harvesting easier. By putting a bunch of wet gooey stuff on one side, and allowing the other side to decompose and dry, there is more material that can pass more easily through the screen.

“The screen?”, you ask.

You will need a screen, a wheelbarrow, and a shovel. I don’t like a screen too small, I don’t see the point. So I use a square of hardware cloth that has 1/2″ webbing. I only screen the compost because I am lazy on the front end–I am not too particular about contaminates that may end up in the bin;  and partly to screen out the harder to digest materials: the avocado pits, and turkey bones and whatnot. The wheelbarrow and the shovel don’t need discussion, do they?

I shovel the dry material…

onto the screen..

and shake it all about…

When I am done shaking and grooving ( a good set of music on the iPod helps), I am left with the finished material…

and the stuff too big to pass through the screen.

After I sort out the trash from the other big stuff**, I put the bigger stuff back on top of the other raw feed stocks–a sort of cover on the material.

This will help it to stay moist and allow it to continue to decompose, but also will remind me to add material to the other side. As an aside benefit, it is also a good indicator of the worm activity–in the spring, when the vermi-metabolism kicks in, the level almost visibly drops from day to day. After the cover has been spread level, I am ready to start adding material to the freshly cleaned out side. In the spring, I’ll do it all over again.

**I strongly recommend experimenting with various feed stocks…who knows what you’ll come up with. Some of the strangest things I’ve discovered is that cardboard milk containers have a very thin plastic lining on the inside. Worms eat the cardboard but leave the lining. Most cotton t-shirts aren’t–there is always a significant percentage of inorganic fabric. Toothpaste boxes (not the tubes, but rather the cardboard packaging) are really not so much cardboard. And those little stickers on organic fruit–the ones that say “organic fruit”– aren’t. I love pulling out countless plastic “windows” left over from junk mail envelopes. Eggshells don’t decompose.