I see the remnants of Christmas trees on my walk every day, ready for trash pick up. Pieces of tinsel hang off the branches blowing in the wintry wind and I feel sorry for them! Destined to be carted off to the nearest landfill, with most of them ground up into chips that will be sold for mulch in the spring.
But I like to keep my tree for a much-needed winter insulating mulch, using the cut up branches under large trees or layered into perennial borders on my property.
Once we pull off all the decorations, we take pruners and chop off half of the branches until we are left with the naked trunk of the tree with some stubs sticking out. Maybe this part would make a good walking stick or even better – a bottle tree!
The evergreen branches are carted outside in a large trash can and laid down as mulch under a large tree that has a lot of pokeweed seedlings come up in the spring. I hope that by laying the flat fans of fraser fir fans on the ground that I won’t see as many pokeweeds in the spring, and that the thick covering will smother any volunteer seedlings.
Another environmental idea is sticking the tree trunk into the ground and hanging suet bags and pine cones filled with peanut butter for the birds.
I thought I knew composting pretty well, see my post ‘Here’s the Dirt on Composting’ at http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/heres-the-dirt-on-composting/. But I just read a post by Joe Lamp’l, who is the host and Executive Producer of the award-winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World, of about the dangers of using manures or hay from chemically sprayed fields. Who knew?!! But every gardener who grows edibles should be aware of this important wrinkle. It makes total sense, but it just goes to show you that we are poisoning ourselves slowly but surely. Go to Joe’s blog http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/killer-compost-it-happened-to-us/ to read the results of doing all the right things – composting manures, amending the soil, mulching, etc., and see what happened to Joe’s vegetables when unknowingly he used tainted compost. This is scary, as I live surrounded by farm fields and I know that the local farmers all use these herbicides.
Amazingly, spray residues from broad-leaved weeds can persist for a long time, from a couple of months, to longer than 3 years! The pathway goes like this; absorption of the herbicide by the roots, the fodder or hay is fed to the animals, then is excreted as manure full of herbicide traces that is resistant to biological degradation when added to the compost pile. The “cooking” of the manure in the decomposition process does not break the herbicides down, persisting into the compost that is carefully added as a soil amendment to nourish the soil. According to the US Composting Council http://compostingcouncil.org/, the molecular bonds joining these herbicide compounds can be resistant to the normal decomposition methods in composting.
Effects on Plants
Joe’s tomatoes were visibly affected with twisted and distorted leaves. Other effects – reduced fruit set, cupping of the leaves, and generally diseased looking plants.
The herbicide container should note in the directions that manures and fodder should not be used for composting, but who reads all the directions?? And does the farmer pass that information on to the hay buyer, or consumer?
What Can You Do?
So, how can you as a homeowner and compost maker and user, avoid these residues?
The traces can be present in hay, manures, leaf, and lawn debris. If an herbicide was used on your lawn to kill broad leaved weeds, then I would not be using any of the lawn clippings in my compost. In the future, I will be asking questions of the farmer that I buy my straw from, and will be checking out any leaf or manures that I put in my compost. A test to see if the herbicide residue is still present is very expensive to do, over $300 a sample, and the debris is not homogenous, so it is hard to test.
I wondered if these findings were new and again the composting council could answer my questions.
This is not new, scientists have been aware of this for a long time, and it is just percolating throughout the gardening world. Go to http://compostingcouncil.org/persistent-herbicide-faq/ for a fascinating read on this topic. Multiple composting facilities have been affected and even had to close down because of tainted compost. A class action suit was filed against Dow, one of the big producers of these herbicides.
Every serious and not no serious gardener should make room for either an open compost pile or enclosed contained composter in their backyard, patio, or balcony.
Composting is a sustainable and environmental method way of gardening that is becoming more of a lifestyle choice. I keep a green enclosed plastic container with a charcoal filter on top, underneath my sink. When I have food garbage, it gets thrown in there, and later is taken up to my larger compost pile outside.
Once in my outdoor compost pile, the food matter gets turned regularly, covered with soil, and mixed with green material from my garden to break down into “black gold”.
Living decomposers, such as millipedes, slugs, fungi, and other insect and animals dig, chew, and digest the organic matter, pass it through their bodies to break it down into a soil-like crumbly dark chocolate-brown substance. This compost is like vitamins for your soil, providing nutrients that are necessary for healthy plants to grow.
Enclosed in snow fencing, I am lucky to have lots of room to spread out my compost pile. Measuring about 10 feet in diameter, it is roomy enough for me to actually roll a wheelbarrow into and dump it, making it very convenient. I can turn over the debris standing within the snow fence, and fling some soil on top to keep down the odor.
Not everyone has the room for an outdoor compost lasagna concoction, so companies are coming out with countertop machines that break down the material, “pre-composting”. By breaking vegetable matter down into smaller pieces, it speeds up the process and becomes more manageable for apartment and small property owners. I tried one of these machines from Ecotonix called the Green Cycler, and set it on my kitchen countertop to take care of my vegetable waste. The Green Cycler attaches to your counter with large suction cups, which stabilizes the unit while you crank the handle to shred. According to the Ecotonix literature, the Green Cycler was developed to “vastly improve food scrap recycling”, and “for kitchen-friendly performance, ease of use and fast clean-up”. It certainly was easy to use, and there is a “ZeoFilter” made from 100% natural, toxin-absorbing zeolite to filter out any odors, and can be recharged over and over.
If you don’t have room for a large compost pile, you could take the ground up vegetable matter or “pre-composted” debris and bury it in your garden to break down quickly to nourish the soil. The Green Cycler stores food scraps in a bottom drawer without smell, mess, or hassle. You simply place the food scraps in the top hopper and use forward and backward grinding action with the crank on the side. The stainless steel shredders will grind through most anything except for peach pits, corn cobs or other stringy matter. By spraying a little Pam on the shredders, the stainless steel cuts through the vegetable matter smoothly. My only complaint is that the machine takes up some valuable real estate on my kitchen counter. You can see more about this machine at www.thegreencycler.com.
Place only vegetable food scraps in your compost, not animal products, as these could attract rats or other animals. Think vegetarian! Anything that has a mother, don’t discard in your compost pile. I also dump debris and cut-backs from my garden into the compost, as well as grass clippings and anything vaguely vegetable in origin. Chopping things up into smaller pieces speeds up decomposition greatly. Serious composters add materials to speed up the cooking process like manures, but I don’t have ready access to these.
I mix up the layers and add soil to hasten decomposition, but if I don’t have time, it will sit and take a little longer to break down. The pile will eventually rot and turn to compost, but can take longer.
What Not to Put in Your Compost Pile
Animal feces are a no no, as they could contain pathogens
Treated lumber as it contains levels of copper used in preservation. Also, if you construct a compost bin, do not use treated lumber for the same reason. Old treated lumber prior to 2003 included levels of copper arsenate, so you certainly don’t want to use this either. To construct a wooden compost pile, use lumber that is rot resistant, such as cedar, juniper, locust, ironwood, or white oak.
Large branches, stumps, or twiggy material as these take too long to decompose
Rhubarb leaves which are poisonous and contain high levels of oxalic acid; the sign above indicates to separate poisonous Rhubarb leaves from other green matter. Some information that I have read on this subject is confusing and says that the composting process will eliminate residues and it would be safe to use. I like to err on the side of caution and don’t add Rhubarb leaves.
Three bin composters are efficient composters because you shift the material along to the next bin as it starts to break down. Air circulation is essential for fast composting and the slatted sides of this type of composter helps air penetration to the debris and speeds up the process. I used to have this type but found that it required more time than I wanted to spend, and changed to a one bin system.