Week-Long Workshops Planned Next Week For G4G Revival Tour: Outdoor Compost Toilets, Rainwater Showers, And Green Building Galore June 27-July 3

The amenities station that will be installed next to the Art Barn at Better Farm.

The amenities station that will be installed next to the Art Barn at Better Farm.

Better Farm welcomes Grateful 4 Grace from June 27-July 3 for a week of green-building projects, team-building and workshops.

Grateful 4 Grace is a non-profit group traveling all over the country to offer helping hands on projects that further a sustainable mission. From their website:

Combining our love for humanity and the love we have for our planet, we have set out to help others help others become more consciously sustainable. With the universe as our guide we plan to gather in effort to grow our sustainable-minded collective consciousness that will produce what we consider to be a balanced environment that all species can live harmoniously with. To accomplish this we are traveling across the world helping intentional communities and organizations that are currently helping with similar causes become self-sustainable. 

Twenty people from Grateful 4 Grace will be staying at Better Farm to help us construct an amenities station next to the Art Barn with compost toilets and solar showers fed by rainwater.  We will additionally be constructing a smaller version of the amenities station next to our new solar-powered tiny home, greywater filtration units, and working on other farm-related projects throughout the week.

The public is invited to help us on this project and gain valuable hands-on experience in construction, green building, sustainability, and alt-energy concepts. To sign up, just email info@betterfarm.org. Lunch and refreshments will be provided!

Volunteers are welcome to join us from Tuesday, June 28, through Saturday, July 2, at Better Farm between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The Humanure Compost Toilet System

Humanure compost toilet system as featured at

Grist.com

.

One of the most wasteful uses of fresh, drinkable water in the world is that of flushing the toilet. Residential toilets alone account for roughly 30 percent of indoor residential water use in the United States—that's equal to more than 2.1

trillion

gallons of freshwater each year, according to the EPA. There's got to be a better way.

Why would we use fresh, drinkable water—which, by the way, is in limited supply—to flush humanure away into some unknowable place for endless processing, especially at a time when we are increasingly aware of the benefits of at-home composting systems? Why do people insist on being the only animals on the planet to live so far removed from any natural systems?

There

is

a better way. Whether you 're hosting an event and need a few extra porta-potties, in need of a toilet out by your work room or garage, re-doing your camp on the lake and lack a bathroom, or if you're ready to transition from a water-based septic or sewer system, the "humanure" compost toilet is a simple, cheap, ecologically responsible way to deal with human waste.

Over the course of your lifetime, you will likely flush the toilet nearly 140,000 times; with each flush using somewhere between 1.28 gallons (if high-efficiency) and 7 gallons of fresh water. Leaking toilets (even the ones you only hear at night) can lose 30 to 500 gallons per day.

Joseph Jenkin's amazingly informative website

The Humanure Handbook

offers tons of ideas for alternatives to traditional, flush toilets—none of which are so gross that the average person can't figure out how to maintain, clean, and utilize the system in his or her everyday life. Although most of the world's humanure is quickly flushed down a drain, or discarded into the environment as a pollutant, it could instead be converted, through composting, into lush vegetative growth, and used to feed humanity.

The humanure process involves a

compost toilet

, a

compost bin

and cover material. Toilet instructions are simple. There are a

variety of ways

to make a humanure toilet (or you can

buy one).

One of the Better Farm projects

last year was to teach students how to construct a basic humanure compost system utilizing discarded scraps of lumber, a 5-gallon pail, and sawdust.

The popularity of that project fostered a second workshop this year. It was also my first time using power tools… thankfully, no fingers were hurt in the process.

First, we constructed the base.

Image from

humanurehandbook.com

Then, we added the sides.

Next, we added the top with the toilet seat and hinges.

Voila! Our completed compost bin (dubbed Shitty Prototype II):

Who knew that recycled wood, a bucket, and an old toilet seat could come in so handy? 

Working Toward Zero Waste

Two years' worth of waste at Sandwich Me In in Chicago.
The Huffington Post last month reported on a restaurant that hasn't produced more than a bag of trash in more than two years because of its commitment to reusing, composting, and buying fresh with little to no packaging. The story is one we should all pay attention to; one that can inspire each of us to figure out ways to produce less garbage.

Justin Vrany, owner of Chicago-based restaurant Sandwich Me In, had the goal of being a "zero waste" restaurant in mind from Day One. His efforts to achieve that goal are showcased in a new short film produced by NationSwell.

Sandwich Me In runs on sustainable energy and sources its food from local farms, which means there's no packaging on the food. Food scraps to spent frying oil are all repurposed. Vrany even went extra lengths to ensure junk mail doesn't get sent to the restaurant.

So how'd he pull it off?

He plans menu items to intersect so no food is wasted. Every part of the chicken is used (bones into broth, breast into sandwich meat, smoked skins onto Cobb salad, etc.), and leftover vegetables are turned into veggie burgers the following day. He even gives his food scraps to farmers who in turn feed them to the chickens who in turn produce eggs for Sandwich Me In.

To keep costs down while he bought fresh, local foods, Vrany spent the first six months of restaurant ownership running the entire business, top-to-bottom, by himself. Making everything—even his own broth from the bones of chickens he buys—saved him even more money. That, paired with composting, produced practically no garbage. And now that the restaurant is starting to turn a profit, he's able to bring in people to help the business run even more smoothly.

So what's he doing with the trash he did produce? An artist who makes sculptures out of refuse recently came in to take the trash, which will soon become a new piece of art.

While at Better Farm we've certainly produced more than two bags of garbage in the last several years, we take a lot of steps to work toward zero (or at least, less) waste. The tricks we use are strategies any household could employ easily. Here's a short list:
  • Buy bulk. The bulk section of markets, where you scoop how much granola or rice you want into a bag, uses a cajillion times less packaging than when you buy a box of cereal or bag of rice. You can bring your own bags to the store, and buy exactly how much you need.
  • Clean with homemade rags. Old T-shirts, jeans, blankets, and even socks make perfect rags to clean with. You can wash them when you're done—and compost them when they wear out.
  • Clean with vinegar, baking soda, and other household items. You'll save a ton, have very little waste, and be utilizing eco-friendly products that won't poison any pets or people.
  • Cook from scratch. Buying fresh ingredients means we're not buying a whole bunch of packaging. It also means we're able to pronounce all the ingredients, and know what we're putting into those temples of bodies we have.
  • Compost. If it's a food scrap, paper scrap, cardboard scrap, or something swept or vacuumed, it's going to the compost pile.
  • Ditch the Styrofoam. You can bring your own doggy bag to a restaurant. And encourage your local businesses to ditch Styrofoam in favor of eco-friendly, compostable takeout boxes and bags.
  • No paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, or paper sticky notes needed! We wash windows with newspaper. If something gets deep-fried (squash blossoms, anyone?!), we let it sit on newspaper or junk mail to let some of the grease escape. When we host dinner parties, we use real plates and wash them together after meals. At gallery openings, we drink out of real glasses. For napkins, we sew our own or use store-bought cloth ones. For scribbling notes or making to-do lists, we use the backs of used paper. Then we compost it.
  • Recycle. This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how much can actually be recycled that isn't.
  • Reuse. Freezer bags, bread bags, sandwich bags, egg cartons, and even the errant supermarket bag can all be cleaned and reused.
  •  Switch to Frozen juice. Every grocery store sells 100-percent (sometimes organic) juice in the frozen foods section. The concentrate comes in a little, recycleable plastic container that is infinitely smaller than a huge juice jug.  
  • Upcycle. Upgrade your lamps by changing the shade. Transform cabinets with a coat of paint. There's not always a need to toss something and buy new—learning to repair things, upgrade them, or give them a new use extends the life of an item, saves you money, and turns the tide on our culture's planned obsolescence for stuff. Also, it's a skillset that will come in handy throughout your whole life.
  • Use reusable shopping bags. There isn't any reason to use plastic or paper shopping bags. Ever. If you're forgetful, keep reusable bags in varying sizes in your car.
Got a great, green tip? Email us at info@betterfarm.org.
2 Comments

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

'Better Buckets' Compost Initiative Kicks Off in Redwood

Redwood's three-tier compost bin.
Volunteers on Saturday gathered behind Redwood's Community Greenhouse to construct a three-bin compost system available for public use as part of the recently launched "Better Buckets" initative.



Better Farm has partnered with the Redwood Neighborhood Association and other local groups and individuals to kick off a new campaign that will turn natural waste into soil and help preserve and expand the natural beauty of the area.


Better Buckets” allows individuals and families in the Redwood area to isolate food scraps from the waste stream in order to benefit their community. Better Farm will deliver five-gallon pails to those who have signed up and make regular visits to empty the buckets—or individuals can bring their full buckets to the community compost bin at anytime. Over time, the food scraps will become healthy soil perfect for fertilizing flowers and produce grown in the community greenhouse. Redwood residents are invited and encouraged to participate in the process of growing plants in the greenhouse, which is operated and overseen by members of the Redwood Neighborhood Association. Plant sales and giveaways throughout the summer months will help to nourish residents and beautify the hamlet. This program is brought to the community at no cost to participating individuals.


How the Three-Tier Compost Bin Works
 

All your dead leaves, grass clippings, twigs, hay, and kitchen food scraps get tossed into the first section of the compost bin until it's a full, big pile. When that bin is full, you shovel it all into the second bin (top-to-bottom). Then you go back to filling the first section of your compost bin. When it fills up again, you move everything from compartment 2 to 3, and from 1 to 2. Then you start over. When all three compartments are full (this should take the average household a full year or even longer), the third bin should be ready to be shoveled out into your garden.

How it works is that over time, the materials in each bin will be decomposing. The process is sped up by your twice-yearly aeration (manually shoveling the pile into the next bin), rainwater falling from overhead, and the natural aeration that will occur by oxygen reaching your pile from the nice big spaces between the wood of the pallets. Also, because you're leaving a bare earth floor, worms and other bugs have easy access to your compost heap.

If you're worried about backyard pests like raccoons or coyotes, be sure to install a hinged door on the front three sections of your compost bin. And of course, if you live in suburbs or the city, you may be subject to zoning or community board laws that would require a closed compost container such as a tumbler. For the rest of you, here's how to have your own three-tier compost bin for less than $20 to cover the cost of screws and chicken wire.

What You'll Need:

  • Pallets (12 feet of pallets for back wall, four 4-foot pallets for the walls. Check with your local hardware store, contractors, big box stores, or your local transfer station. Free pallets are in abundance!)
  • Galvanized Decking Screws (longer is better)
  • Chicken Wire
  • Optional: Three "front doors" for your compost sections with hinges (each door should measure 4x4)
Directions:
  1. Screw the far left wall into the back wall with screws every six inches or so, driven from back to front.
  2. Repeat with the second wall (if pallet is wide enough, screw it into both sections of back wall. If not, you may need some additional pieces of wood to create a solid back to screw into. We were fortunate enough to find a very long pallet to have one continuous back wall).
Many thanks to volunteers from the Redwood Neighborhood Association, Better Farm, and individuals living locally to make this vision a reality. To participate in the Better Buckets program, email info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Coming Soon: Better Buckets


Image from Jose Vilson.
Introducing Redwood to Compost in Order to Preserve its Natural Beauty and Teach Sustainability 
Composting is the process of turning food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. With up to 40 percent of all landfills comprised of otherwise biodegradable food scraps, composting is a simple way to cut a huge amount out of the waste stream while benefiting backyard gardens, homegrown produce, and increasing amounts of topsoil.

To that end, Better Farm has partnered with the Redwood Neighborhood Association and other local groups and individuals to kick off a new campaign that will turn natural waste into soil and help preserve and expand the natural beauty of the area.

“Better Buckets” allows individuals and families in the Redwood area to isolate food scraps from the waste stream in order to benefit their community. Better Farm will deliver five-gallon pails to those who have signed up and make regular visits to empty the buckets. Waste will be brought to Redwood's Community Greenhouse for processing (and overflow to Better Farm), where over time the food scraps will become healthy soil perfect for fertilizing flowers and produce grown in the community greenhouse. Redwood residents are invited and encouraged to participate in the process of growing plants in the greenhouse, which is operated and overseen by members of the Redwood Neighborhood Association. Plant sales and giveaways throughout the summer months will help to nourish residents and beautify the hamlet. This program is brought to the community at no cost to participating individuals.

A three-tier compost bin will be installed at the community greenhouse during a compost workshop this spring, and fliers will be distributed to residents with more information and sign-up opportunities. Stay tuned for more information!

If you are interested in participating in this initiative, please email info@betterfarm.org or attend the next meeting of the Redwood Neighborhood Association at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of next month at St. Francis church on Route 37 in Redwood.
1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

DIY Three-Tier Compost Bin

Don't be fooled by all the greenwashing! Composting is the simplest, most natural thing in the world; and it doesn't require tumblers or bins that can cost you hundreds of dollars. With a few wood pallets, a drill, and outdoor decking screws, you can have a three-tier compost bin in less than 15 minutes that will last for years and provide you with a rotating supply of gorgeous, black dirt.


How a Three-Tier Compost Bin Works
All your dead leaves, grass clippings, twigs, hay, and kitchen food scraps (yes, even meat scraps and bones are fine, as you'll be working on a one-year system with your dirt)  get tossed into the first section of your compost bin until it's a full, big pile. When that bin is full, you shovel it all into the second bin (top-to-bottom). Then you go back to filling the first section of your compost bin. When it fills up again, you move everything from compartment 2 to 3, and from 1 to 2. Then you start over. When all three compartments are full (this should take the average household a full year or even longer), the third bin should be ready to be shoveled out into your garden.

How it works is that over time, the materials in each bin will be decomposing. The process is sped up by your twice-yearly aeration (manually shoveling the pile into the next bin), rainwater falling from overhead, and the natural aeration that will occur by oxygen reaching your pile from the nice big spaces between the wood of the pallets. Also, because you're leaving a bare earth floor, worms and other bugs have easy access to your compost heap.

Click here for tons of really great compost information.

If you're worried about backyard pests like raccoons or coyotes, be sure to install a hinged door on the front three sections of your compost bin. And of course, if you live in suburbs or the city, you may be subject to zoning or community board laws that would require a closed compost container such as a tumbler. For the rest of you, here's how to have your own three-tier compost bin in fewer than 15 minutes and for just the cost of screws.

What You'll Need:
  • Pallets (12 feet of pallets for back wall, four 4-foot pallets for the walls. Check with your local hardware store, contractors, big box stores, or your local transfer station. Free pallets are in abundance!)
  • Galvanized Decking Screws (longer is better)
  • Optional: Three "front doors" for your compost sections with hinges (each door should measure 4x4)
Directions:
  1. Screw the far left wall into the back wall with screws every six inches or so, driven from back to front.
  2. Repeat with the second wall (if pallet is wide enough, screw it into both sections of back wall. If not, you may need some additional pieces of wood to create a solid back to screw into. We were fortunate enough to find a very long pallet to have one continuous back wall). Continue until you have four walls and one solid back wall. Refer to photo at top of this post. 
Better Farm offers private and group instruction on composting basics and many other sustainability topics. Email info@betterfarm.org for further information or to schedule a visit. 
1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Four-Year Reflection: What a Difference Mulching Makes

Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2009.
Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2013.
Mulch gardening is a great way to turn hard-to-love soil into rich black gold—and to prove the worthiness of this organic method, I'm going to walk you through my experiences with the clay-rich soil of the North Country—and how mulch gardening turned a hayed, nutritionally depleted field into a lush vegetable and fruit garden.


I moved to Better Farm in June of 2009; a period of time during which there were a few raised flower beds on the property, two acres of mowed lawn, dense forest all around, and roughly 8 acres of fields that were hayed twice yearly for consumption by a neighboring farm's cows.

In August of that year, I wandered out into the side yard of the farm and began staking out a 20' x 24' rectangle that would, I hoped, turn into a garden. Of course, I instantly broke a trowel and then a shovel trying to get into that clay-rich soil:
I'd spent that summer up here researching various organic gardening methods that utilized principles of permaculture and composting, and found that the style I was most intrigued by was Ruth Stout's mulch gardening technique. In her book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, Stout exhalts a direct-compost and haying method that minimizes weeding, removes the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides, promotes abundant growth, makes use of items many others would consider trash, and takes away the sometimes laborious task of keeping a compost pile or bin that needs to be turned, shoveled, and cared for.

I know, sounds too good to be true. But the thing is, that lady was right-on.

Once you've staked out your plot, it's time to start treating the soil. This can start instantly, and will continue even long after crops are planted. The idea here is to avoid the cost of buying fresh mulch, and the maintenance of a compost bin that needs regular attention, turning, and so on. What Stout recommends is essentially turning your plot of land into an ongoing compost/mulch pit. That means raked leaves, grass clippings, a little wood ash from a fire, and food scraps can all get dumped directly on the soil and left alone. So long as you don't throw stuff like meat scraps into this ongoing mulch situation, you can rest fairly assured that you won't have too many critters contending for these scraps. Starting with a barrier of cardboard will ensure you kill the weeds below.

As the summer of 2009 turned to autumn, I composted all I could and began saving cardboard for my new mulch garden. And when spring came in 2010, I worked with some friends to get wooden posts (donated by a neighbor in Plessis) into the ground for fencing.

With the garden (a much larger than originally planned, 85' x 100') staked out, I worked with the people at Better Farm to make some rows in accordance with Ruth Stout's directives. And lo and behold, it worked!
Now, in the first year of mulch gardening, chances are you're not going to have all that much compost, cardboard, and decomposing hay to work with. The truth is, it isn't until your third or fourth year that you'll really see how you're transforming the dirt you're working on top of. So let's fast-forward to see the transformation:

2009
2010

2011

2012

2013
All of these images were taken at roughly the same time of the season, and you can really see the improvement as far as weed control, lushness, size of the produce, and the organization of our crops. Of course, a huge amount of this is due to the diligence of our Sustainability Education Students, our volunteers, and staff; in addition, having a solid, healthy template of fertile soil makes everybody's life a whole lot easier.

But really, about that dirt. Look at what hard, clay soil turns into with a little mulching:

To learn more about mulch gardening, click here. To schedule a one-on-one or group workshop on the subject, call (315) 482-2536 or email info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

The 'Humanure' Compost Toilet System

Our humanure toilet prototype, built in about two hours for $0.

Whether you 're hosting an event and need a few extra porta-potties, in need of a toilet out by your work room or garage, re-doing your camp on the lake and lack a bathroom, or if you're ready to transition from a water-based septic or sewer system, the "humanure" compost toilet is a simple, cheap, ecologically responsible way to deal with human waste.

First, the stats:

  • Residential toilets account for approximately 30% of indoor residential water use in the United States—equivalent to more than 2.1 trillion gallons of water consumed each year. (EPA)

  • Over the course of your lifetime, you will likely flush the toilet nearly 140,000 times. (EPA)

  • Leaking toilets (even the ones you only hear at night) can lose 30 to 500 gallons per day. (American Water Works Foundation)

  • Many of our toilets have a constant leak — somewhere around 22 gallons per day. This translates into about 8,000 gallons per year of wasted water, water that could be saved. (United States Geological Survey)

Our main resource for constructing a humanure toilet was Joseph Jenkins' site, The Humanure Handbook. In addition to free compost-toilet plans and tons of great information,  he's got humanure toilets for sale, books available on the subject, and informational videos about emptying bins, layering materials, and more.

From that site:

Although most of the world's humanure is quickly flushed down a drain, or discarded into the environment as a pollutant, it could instead be converted, through composting, into lush vegetative growth, and used to feed humanity. The humanure process involves a compost toilet, a compost bin and cover material. Toilet instructions are simple. There are a variety of ways to make a humanure toilet (or you can buy one).

Here are a few images of completed humanure toilets.

There's not a whole lot to the design: You've got a 5-gallon bucket in a wooden box with hinged top, connected to a toilet seat. Next to the toilet, you keep a container filled with sawdust. After each use, a scoop of sawdust is added to help with decomposition and neutralize any odors. When the toilet is full, you empty it into a compost heap outside, add a thick layer of hay or straw (or weeds, dead leaves, or grass clippings), and wash the bin out. How gross is that? Not as bad as you might guess: Click here for full instructions (and video) on emptying and cleaning receptacles.

The purposes for composting humanure include preventing water pollution, recycling human excrement to prevent fecal contamination of the environment, and recovering soil nutrients for the purpose of growing food. It is recommended that you keep a two- or even three-sectioned composting system so that you can let your compost decompose for up to a year before it is broken down completely for use in a flower or vegetable garden. The compost system can be used for all compostable home items (from grass clippings to veggie scraps to humanure).

For our humanure toilet, we used a 5-gallon bucket, plywood scraps we found in the wood shed, an old toilet seat cover, and a few screws. We used the directions available for free at Jenkins' website (click here for those plans). Here's Greg making the fit for the top of the box:

...Greg and Jacob fitting the pieces of the box together:

...Jacob and Katie cutting the legs:

...Rebekah and Jacob throwing a coat of primer onto the box:

 ... And our finished prototype. After being in use for four days, we report only a slight odor of sawdust, and no bug attraction.

1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Composting as a Radical Act

Image from OK Jim's Eggroll Emporium.
To provide your gardens with life-giving nitrogen, forget about buying chemical fertilizers. There are endless composting options that will allow you to give your plants all the nourishment they need—without the nasty effects of chemical runoff choking the life out of estuaries, streams, and rivers.

Fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Image from ABC News.
Yesterday's explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas is akin to devastation wrought by pipes bursting during oil extraction or the disastrous side effects of fracking. In our manic attempts to artificially grow super-crops, live in unnecessary luxury, and pay more heed to money than common sense, we're causing untold damage to the Earth's ecosystems—and, inevitably, to ourselves. Anytime we pack hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate into a factory to make chemical fertilizer, we're putting lives at risk. Anytime we run pipelines to transfer oil, we're risking the health and well-being of animals, crops, and people.

But let's get off the soapbox and spend a few minutes exploring ways to take matters into our own hands.

Growing your own food removes your need for Big Agriculture. By creating your own beds of greens, veggies, and even fruit trees, you're taking yourself out of the monster machine that large-scale agriculture's become. So if you're making that move, why not ensure that in your small microcosm, the run-off from your backyard isn't going to contribute to any pollution or sickening runoff?

It's easy. We promise.

First, let's consider the two biggest culprits of unhealthy backyard gardening: pesticides and fertilizers. 

PESTICIDES: The EPA estimates that approximately 74 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients (7 percent of total conventional pesticide use in the United States) are used in homes and gardens each year. Pesticides are either applied by commercial pest control and landscape maintenance companies or by homeowners themselves. Studies have shown that pesticides can be extremely unsafe, particularly when they run off into waterways, which can cause short- and long-term damage to people and the environment. Pesticides can also inadvertently kill living things that they are not intended to. As a whole, pesticides do provide some benefits, but they are also known to harm the environment and the plants and animals that it contains. When a pesticide leaches through the soil where it is applied, it can end up in the water table. In waterways, millions of fish are killed by pesticides each year, and other aquatic life also suffers the consequences of pesticide-contaminated water. Pesticides are also known to add to air pollution as a result of pesticide drift, and some even play a role in harming the ozone layer and contributing to global warming. Additionally, pesticides have a resistance to breaking down over time, meaning that their effects can continue over a long period of time.

FERTILIZERS: (From Jerry Greenfield) Chemical fertilizers promote quick growth in plants, which can prevent them from developing a good root growth, strong stems, or nutritious fruits and vegetables. Plants will sprout quickly, but what you'll end up with will not be worth much. Chemical fertilizer is usually high in nitrogen salts, and if the nitrogen is absorbed by soil too quickly, it will end up dehydrating the plant, causing it to dry up and die. Chemicals in man-made fertilizers will harm and eventually kill the natural microbes found in your soil. These include beneficial insects, fungus, and bacteria naturally found in your soil. These "creatures" are all naturally occurring and necessary for healthy soil and plant growth. Obviously applying chemicals to your plants and soil will affect these organisms. Chemicals in synthetic fertilizers will eventually, and unavoidably, end up leaking into our environment's water supply. It will be consumed by wildlife and can have short- and long-term effects on them—just like it would if we were to ingest these chemicals. Finally, let's think about the fact that we are going to eat these plants. If we are saturating the soil they grow in with chemicals, and then feeding the plants and treating them with chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides), how can we possibly think these fruits and vegetables are healthy for us to eat? What is the point of growing our own food if we're just going to poison it before eating it?

Composting as a Radical Act
Consider growing your own food your civic duty, and composting as your radical act. Done properly, you'll be creating your own closed-loop system that flies in the face of Big Ag. All you'll need to start a basic compost set-up are a small container in your kitchen to catch your food scraps, and a larger bin outside to store them. (Note: If you're in a city and/or don't have a yard, vermicompost is the way to go. You'll just need a large tupperware container under your sink to hold the worms. Done right, we promise that your guests—and pests like bugs/rats/mice—will never know the worms and food scraps are there! Click here for more information.)

First, let's go over the basics of compost. Here's a briefing on the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, gleaned from "Composting 101":


  All organic matter is made up of substantial amounts of carbon (C) combined with lesser amounts of nitrogen (N). The balance of these two elements in an organism is called the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio). For best performance, the compost pile, or more to the point the composting microorganisms, require the correct proportion of carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein production. Scientists (yes, there are compost scientists) have determined that the fastest way to produce fertile, sweet-smelling compost is to maintain a C:N ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25-30:1. If the C:N ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the C:N ratio is too low (excess nitrogen) you will end up with a stinky pile.

Below are the average C:N ratios for some common organic materials found in the compost bin. For our purposes, the materials containing high amounts of carbon are considered "browns," and materials containing high amounts of nitrogen are considered "greens."

Estimated Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios
Browns = High Carbon C:N
Ashes, wood 25:1
Cardboard, shredded 350:1
Corn stalks 75:1
Fruit waste 35:1
Leaves 60:1
Newspaper, shredded 175:1
Peanut shells 35:1
Pine needles 80:1
Sawdust 325:1
Straw 75:1
Wood chips 400:1
Greens = High Nitrogen C:N
Alfalfa 12:1
Clover 23:1
Coffee grounds 20:1
Food waste 20:1
Garden waste 30:1
Grass clippings 20:1
Hay 25:1
Manures 15:1
Seaweed 19:1
Vegetable scraps 25:1
Weeds 30:1

Note: Many ingredients used for composting do not have the ideal ratio of 25-30:1. As a result, most must be mixed to create "the perfect compost recipe." High C:N ratios may be lowered by adding grass clippings or manures. Low C:N ratios may be raised by adding paper, dry leaves or wood chips. 
Your Very Own Compost Bin
Your compost is going to act as a wonderful fertilizer for your plants. That, used in tandem with crop rotation and natural bug deterrents (and attractants!) will ensure a healthy garden for years to come. 
For in Your Kitchen
The most popular compost bins for inside come in plastic, ceramic, or metal. They generally have a charcoal filter to keep the food scraps aerated without smelling. You can also make your own (click here for instructions!), or use a sturdy snap-lock tupperware container that you empty out every day or so and rinse well. Here are a few images of standard kitchen compost containers:
Plastic bin from Great Green Gadgets.
 
Metal compost bin from Natural Home Merchandise.


Ceramic compost bin from st.houzz.com.
For Your Yard
Backyard compost can come in a heap, a bin, a barrel, a pallet cube, or can simply be put directly onto your garden beds (as we often do in our mulch gardens). Some of the most popular outdoor compost tumblers are plastic, which causes some concern for those concerned about toxins leeching out of the plastic as the compost heats up inside. There are no conclusive tests on the subject thus far—probably in part because compost doesn't get hotter than about 160 degrees—but for those of you who are weary, there are plenty of other options besides those plastic tumblers.
Wooden compost bins are readily available online (click here for some examples), but for significantly less you can make your own (check out these directives from Instructables). And for those of you out in the country, a simple wire-mesh enclosure will do the trick (to turn your compost every few months, just rake out the pile, move your stakes, and shovel out the black earth at the bottom). But you can also use old bureaus, old fencing, or any other design you can dream up. Most important is that you're able to turn the food scraps, and that they receive ample amount of aeration for good decomposition.
Share your compost design ideas with us at info@betterfarm.org.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Season Kick-Off Weekend at Better Farm

Community potluck dinner-party season has started back up!
We've got spring fever at Better Farm, and have kicked the season off right by getting seed flats planted, harvesting an aquaponic bounty and copious amounts of free-range eggs, rehabilitating some unwanted plants, making signs for our new trails system, and pasteurizing last year's compost.

Seed Planting
Our artichokes, peppers, mulberries, huckleberries, leeks,  and several other varieties of produce have been planted in flats throughout the main house at the farm. Aloe plants have been divided and repotted to encourage growth for a budding skincare and essential oil line (stay tuned for more information about that!).


Aquaponic Harvest
We have a variety of beautiful, organic lettuces ready to go! Please contact us at (315) 482-2536 or info@betterfarm.org if you would like to place an order.

Egg Heads
The chickens are hip to the season shift and are laying dozens upon dozens of beautiful Ameraucana, Leghorn, and Bard Rock eggs. A dozen eggs is $3 and includes a variety of all the above-listed varieties

Plant Rehab
A trip to Watertown on Friday yielded a handful of sick cactuses and orchids being discarded at a local store that we'll be rehabilitating over the next several months. This "plant hospital" will afford us the opportunity to educated visitors on bringing plants back to life—and keep these beauties from ending up in the garbage.

New Trail-System Signs
Over the weekend a group of us walked the new trail system in Better Farm's woods—and made trailhead signs to guide the way. By summer, we'll have a map to go along with the trails, as well as trail markers and camping sites. E-mail us if you'd like to volunteer on this project.

Compost Pasteurization
We blogged in February about how pasteurizing your compost can benefit from pasteurization:
Many people choose the safest route to prevent hitchhiking seeds and damping-off by buying a pre-sterilized package of potting soil, if you have a large amount of pots and flats to fill, this could be expensive. By taking a couple of extra steps before you begin, you can use your own rich, organic compost. Some people "bake" their soil in their oven to kill micro-organisms. But this process of sterilization kills everything, even the healthy organisms that you have worked so hard to create. The answer is simple: Instead of sterilizing compost and garden soil, pasteurize it. While sterilizing kills virtually all surface-dwelling microorganisms, when you pasteurize your potting mixture, it is only heated to a temperature that kills harmful organisms and leaves beneficial organisms alone.
We experimented with this process, which wasn't as smelly as you might initially imagine; and we've been left with fluffy black soil that's going to be very very good to our seeds and seedlings in the garden.

Green Thumb: Pasteurize Your Compost

Seedlings that have succumbed to "damping-off". Image from Oregon State.
We've run into some issues in the last few years when compost being used as potting soil for new seeds has led to all kinds of errant seedlings sprouting (we're looking at you, cherry tomatoes!). The compost has harbored seeds of all kinds that were thrown out, only to hang around until spring when we try to grow other seeds out of the newly formed dirt.

While this may be welcome in some instances, in others it's important that your compost not sprout unwanted weeds or plants you don't intend to take care of. We've also learned that "damping-off" (a horticultural condition caused by pathogens killing or weakening seeds and seedlings)
can zap your seedlings before they have a fighting chance to grow. 

These issues can be solved in one fell swoop by pasteurizing your compost before using it for potting soil.

About "Damping-Off"
Most prevalent in wet and cool conditions, damping-off happens when pathogens kill or weaken seeds and seedlings.All symptoms result in the death of at least some seedlings in any given population. Groups of seedlings may die in roughly circular patches, the seedlings sometimes having stem lesions at ground level. Stems of seedlings may also become thin and tough ("wire-stem") resulting in reduced seedling vigor. Leaf spotting sometimes accompanies other symptoms, as does a grey mold growth on stems and leaves. Roots sometimes rot completely or back to just discolored stumps.

Seeds that are infected with damping off will not germinate and plant stems shrivel causing seedlings to topple over and die. If you have waited an unusually long time for a particular seed to germinate, brush the soil away and carefully take a peak. If it is dark and mushy it has damping off and the only thing left to do is start over, this time with clean potting soil.

This problem happens everywhere things grow, no matter where you live and there is absolutely no remedy once plants and seeds are infected. The answer is prevention.

Damping off can be prevented or controlled in several different ways. Sowing seeds in a sterilized growing medium can be effective, although fungal spores may still be introduced to the medium, either on the seeds themselves or after sowing (in water or on the wind). Maintaining drier conditions with better air circulation helps prevent the spread of the disease, although it can also prevent or slow down germination. Spraying or drenching the soil with a recommended anti-fungal treatment (such as copper oxychloride) also helps suppress the disease. Homemade solutions (including ones made from chamomile tea or garlic) are used by some gardeners for this purpose.

Pasteurizing Compost

Note: the following tips were gleaned from Aradacee.
Many people choose the safest route to prevent hitchhiking seeds and damping-off by buying a pre-sterilized package of potting soil, if you have a large amount of pots and flats to fill, this could be expensive. By taking a couple of extra steps before you begin, you can use your own rich, organic compost.

Some people "bake" their soil in their oven to kill micro-organisms. But this process of sterilization kills everything, even the healthy organisms that you have worked so hard to create.

The answer is simple: Instead of sterilizing compost and garden soil, pasteurize it. While sterilizing kills virtually all surface-dwelling microorganisms, when you pasteurize your potting mixture, it is only heated to a temperature that kills harmful organisms and leaves beneficial organisms alone.

How-To
To pasteurize, take a large aluminum-baking pan and cover it with three to four inches of potting soil, insert a meat thermometer in the center and place in a preheated oven, at 200°F., once the center reads 160°F., bake for 30 minutes. Allow mixture to cool thoroughly before using.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.