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compost

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

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One reason I don’t turn the compost very often is that so many interesting things grow there. This healthy looking potato plant, for example. This morning it has opened its first flower, and what a beauty it is! Just as it opens, the camera finds it:

Not too much later, the flower has fully expanded, with bent back, pastel petals exposing the glistening, yellow anthers and light green pistil:

Potato plants (when they are healthy) seem like they are molded out of fine plastic. The shapes are so clean and precise.

This one is very likely making a whole bunch of little potatoes inside the compost. Later this year I’ll dig them out. If they are big enough maybe some will be eaten, and others will definitely get planted around the neighborhood. Such a strong plant deserves to reproduce!

It seems like there have been a lot of posts about flies lately, no?

When the post on turning the compost came together it was slightly frustrating not to have a good picture of a black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) (Wikipedia). Now a big beautiful female has posed for us on a runner bean leaf, so here is her portrait.

With their jet black wings, antennae, and body and brightly contrasting white leg segments, these rather large flies (as big as a large bean) are among the most distinguished looking insects in the garden. As adults, they do not eat – in fact, they have no functioning mouth parts. They are also surprisingly tame – they can often be picked up easily in the hand, where they might just walk around instead of flying away.

This female’s bulging abdomen is loaded with eggs. Now that she has mated and become gravid, her only goal in life is to find some nice organic matter where her babies can grow. Quite possibly her target will be our box of fresh kitchen scraps:

more fly posts:

two gorgeous flies

just an ordinary fly?

This loudly vocal, perky blue jay has been regularly visiting the eco-compost pile, eating hearty on the black soldier flies, worms, sowbugs, earwigs, centipedes, and lots of other critters thriving there. Like blue jays in general, this one is just about completely unafraid of me. I can walk around freely, even talk to it or imitate its own calls, and it just looks at me. I thought about offering it a peanut, but it already has enough to eat.

The only time I ever saw a bird dismantle a paper wasp nest and eat all of the wasps and their young, it was a blue jay.

Our feathered friend on the compost is just about one year old, one of two offspring hatched by an older pair of blue jays that visited frequently last summer. Looks like the whole family has been enjoying the harvest!

Even though many of the plants in my eco-gardens come right up out of seeded eco-compost, it’s good to start certain kinds of seedlings separately, to get them going well. Rather than spend money on peat pots (and aren’t peat bogs a precious eco-resource?) let’s use these short sections of cardboard tubes from the center of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.

Arrange them on a slanted tray, fill with planting medium, and add some seeds. Water with a fine mist until the tubes are all fully soaked top to bottom, and there is a persistent puddle at the low end of the tray. Keep it moist – a layer of saran wrap is a good idea if the weather is warm and dry.

In this example, the tall, strappy yellow-green seedlings are Swiss chard. The broader leafed ones at the front are radishes.

Here at my apartment, there is very limited space for a composting system. One way to create compost in such a small space is to use a set of waterproof, decay-proof plastic tarpaulins to contain and control the process. On the upstairs deck is an ecosystem-based “low and slow” compost pile designed to produce rich, seed-packed eco-compost, an integral part of all of the eco-gardening projects.

“Low and slow” means that this compost system works at a relatively low temperature and takes a fairly long time to fully process its “food.” One reason it is low and slow is because it’s fairly small, so it can’t attain the high temperatures needed for fast composting.

Another reason it’s “low and slow” is because the process of ecosystem composting is fascinating to watch, and I like to let it develop through a whole ecosystem cycle before disturbing it by turning it over. The center of the pile develops more slowly than it might, because oxygen does not get in there very frequently.

It’s time to turn the compost!

In the picture above, the tarpaulin has been opened out and weighted with some bricks. A second one has been inserted at the left side, with its edge underneath. This one will receive the material from the pile as it is turned and mixed.

Above, I’ve started pulling away the loose, dry plant material from the top of the pile. I usually just casually toss plant clippings onto the top, letting them dry out naturally. They contain the precious seeds that will become such an important ingredient in this eco-compost. Unlike traditional “hot” composting systems, this eco-compost pile is deliberately designed to preserve the plant seeds that end up in it. We want the seeds to sprout when the final mixture is delivered to the garden.

One important note: I’m using a four-tined sharp-ended claw tool, which seems very eager to rip big holes into the tarpaulin. I must be careful! I do not want to destroy the tarp’s waterproof properties, so I use the claw tool very gently, angling it so that the tips do not injure the tarp.

Above: The dry plant matter is brought over to the receiving tarpaulin (off the left in this picture) where it will soon be covered up (and moistened!) by the remainder of the compost pile after it is sifted. Now the darker, moist “core” ecosystem is exposed. This is where most of the decomposing action happens. It’s loaded with many kinds of critters like worms, sowbugs, springtails, mites, nematodes, centipedes, fly larvae, and much, much more.

Worm tracks are visible on the tarpaulin where some of the core has been moved away. They are in there, and it looks like they are fairly large too.

Now the exercise begins. Yes, tarpaulin composting (the way I do it at least!) involves some labor. The first few shovels of core compost are on the sifter and I’m ready to get a little bit sweaty!

On the left, the first bit of sifted compost.

On the sifter is the first batch of material to be dropped over the dry stuff that was pulled away from the core. This large debris is mostly bits of woody stems, chicken bones (yes, this composting method can take animal products), chunks of eggshell, and a few foreign items like fruit labels and small stones. It gets returned to the flow for further breakdown, after I pull out the worst of the foreign items.

On the right, the rest of the unsifted core.

Above: the good stuff! Freshly sifted compost from the active core of the pile. Heavily laced with a wide variety of seeds from all sorts of interesting plants, moist and loamy. What an amazing, rich, sweet aroma it has.

After sifting about half of the core, the remainder of it is shoveled onto the top of the destination pile, and the tarp is dragged over to the spot where the original pile was. The edges get rolled neatly and weighted with bricks, and the pile is groomed into a nice clean shape. But we’re not done yet.

Above: On the right, finished, sifted, seeded compost. In the center, kitchen scraps from our own kitchen and those of several neighbors. This is the rich “food” that enlivens the compost pile and makes it more than just a tangle of dead, dry plant stems. On the left, a bucket of Just Plain Dirt collected from various different places. It contains many kinds of seeds, including those of plants that are not yet part of the garden.

Above: The bucket of kitchen scraps is inverted over the top of the compost pile, revealing hundreds of large fly larvae that were crowding the bottom of the bucket. These are larvae of black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens, read more in this Wikipedia article).

UPDATE: here’s more about black soldier flies, with a great picture of a gravid female.

Black soldier flies are not only quite common here in California, they are among the best and fastest compost decomposers, whose larvae have absolutely ravenous appetites. Were it not for the soldier fly larvae, this freshly dumped bucket of kitchen scraps would have been four or five buckets – that’s how fast they eat vegetable scraps and convert them into … well … themselves, and a layer of rich, black, loamy waste. They work so darned fast that the kitchen scraps in this bucket rarely have a chance to get moldy or smelly.

Now that the bucket has been dumped, these fly larvae will dig themselves in and pupate, emerging as flies within a week or so. The adult flies and larvae are wonderful food for birds (bluejays, juncoes, and mourning doves frequently scratch around in the compost looking for them) and contribute to the local ecosystem’s diversity and health.

In the last picture, a couple of shovels of dry neighborhood dirt have been roughly dumped on top of the upturned deposit of kitchen scraps. I’ll spray the compost pile down with a bit of water, and my morning exercise session is finished. Yeah!