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There she is! I call her the compost beast. She lives on a tarpaulin on the upstairs deck. How beautiful she is, basking in the morning sun.

Let’s open it up and see more of her.

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The right end of the beast is the input end, AKA her “mouth.” This is where the new “compost food” (kitchen scraps, mostly) goes in. The left end is the output end, AKA her (well, you can figure it out).

150222-1050At right is a close-up of part of the input end. There are moldy fruits, egg shells, various other food debris, and you might also notice some bits of shredded paper.

A few chicken bones are allowed into the stream to add more phosphorus and calcium as they slowly break down. There are also a few twigs and stems of garden cuttings, but not the ones that have lots of viable seeds.

In the past I used to take the time to carefully break up the compost food into bite-size chunks, as a way of “pre-chewing” it so the beast could digest it better. But nowadays I don’t bother to pre-chew her food, because she does a very good job of it as the food decays inside of her.

Time to get to work!

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Before I can add any new compost food I need to do a bit of “grooming” using a soft-tined garden rake. With this type of composting one must act as a sorting agent, bringing the largest bits of undecomposed material back to the input end from the output end. They get re-cycled through the beast until they either break down or are removed during an operation I call “slimming down” that will be described in another post.

To accomplish this debris-sorting the rear end is groomed up toward the front end, bringing those larger bits back for re-digestion. Even though this grooming is only done to the surface layers, over time it is a very effective way to keep the beast sorted from front to back.

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Above is today’s “meal.” You can see citrus peels (often considered too acid for making good compost, but the beast can handle them). There are also avocado peels, egg shells, and a coffee filter (the grounds are there too!) and underneath are some rotting eggplant parts and much more.

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Above: A shovel has been used to open out the input end, creating a flattish space where new food can be added. But we are not ready to do that yet.

150222-1117The kitchen scraps alone would not make good compost. They are too dense and wet, and they are chemically unbalanced. First, I have to add some absorbent, high-carbon content bulk.

That’s easy enough. Like most suburban households, we generate a fair amount of scrap newsprint. This excellent material is sliced into strips with an old-fashioned paper cutter and deposited into the beast’s open mouth.

However, we don’t just use any old paper. Fortunately, the right kind is readily available for free. It’s mostly made of local free newspapers, almost all of which (these days) use good paper and non-toxic, soy-based inks. That’s what we want.

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I’m almost done! The compost food is deposited on top of the shredded paper, and mixed around a bit with the shovel. Any really large chunks are chopped into a few smaller pieces.

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Above: The beast’s mouth is re-closed by moving debris from around the edges back up on top of the new food. Now she is ready to digest her meal. Notice how she is all humped up around the new stuff. That hump will drop down over the next day or two, as the kitchen scraps rapidly decompose.

Below: Back in her tarpaulin robe, the compost beast lies in the warm sun, peacefully digesting her new meal.

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Here is a smallish eco-pack, whose main feature is a beautiful little Solanum “potato vine” (maybe S. seaforthianum or S. jasminoides) climbing up a post in the middle. This plant was deliberately placed here, sprouting from a bulb harvested from a client’s garden in San Jose, CA. I’m going to up-pot it into the round black pot.

150222-1213Right: The vine is not the only plant in the eco-pack. It also contains a tiny little stinging nettle deep in one corner. There are also a few small seedlings of scarlet pimpernel and Kenilworth ivy plus a few other seedlings that are still too small to identify.

When up-potting an eco-pack (or planting it in the ground) it is important to do our best to preserve as many of the plants as possible. Let’s see if we can keep the little nettle and the other seedlings.

Placing a few fingers directly on the soil (between the plant stems!) I invert the pot and squeeze it gently with my left hand. After a few squeezes the whole thing slips easily out.

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Above: The pack has been very carefully removed from its pot and the destination pot has a bit of good planting mix in the bottom. This is the perfect time to up-pot this eco-pack because the roots have grown enough to hold the soil together but not so much that they are sucking the last bits of nutrients out. We want to see the roots around the outside, but we also want to see a good amount of soil.

150222-1227Right: The pack and its rectangular chunk of soil rests on the planting mix in the bottom of the new pot. I do not “rough up” the root ball in any way – in fact I am very careful to preserve every bit of its structure. There are several kinds of plants here and their roots are deeply entwined. Let’s not damage them!

With one hand I scoop a bit of new planting mix and very gently pour it down into the open slots along the edges of the root clump, all around the outside. I am very careful not to pour any planting mix onto the existing soil surface.

Still very gently, I use two or three fingers to push down the new planting mix, adding more as needed until there is a new level surface outside of the plants that were already in the eco-pack.

A gentle shake and bump-bump of the pot settles the new mix into place. The results are below. Can you see the tiny stinging nettle, still happy at what used to be the corner of the old pot?

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One more thing. Any time a plant’s roots are disturbed, and especially if they are in contact with new, dry soil, it is important to give a serious watering. With the hand spray set on “shower” mode I give it a good deep watering, until it drips out the bottom.

That’s it! Now this little vine and its community will have some room to grow bigger!

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Large bunch grasses can be among the most challenging plants to prune. Every year they send up dozens of flowering stalks, which quickly turn into seed-heads shedding vast numbers of tiny potential grass sprouts all over the nearby landscape. Many gardeners resort to heavy weaponry to simply shear them right down to the ground, leaving behind an ugly, unhealthy, flat-topped “tuffet” of cut stems and leaves. Definitely not naturalistic!

I was recently faced with just such a challenge. Large clumps of perennial grass had gone to seed and grown out into unruly pompoms with long leaves (blades) trailing out across nearby plants. The client agreed that another annual shearing was not wanted, but could these grasses be limited back without sacrificing a natural look?

Of course they could! But it involved three different pruning methods, two of which were invented on the spot. Let’s start in the back garden, where a large grass looked like this in the “before” picture:

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First, the seed stems. They all had to come off. I reached in and clipped the seed stems way down among last year’s sheared-off stems. That worked to invisibly remove them, but there was a problem: I was also removing a lot of the green blades clinging to the stems. This was not good because those leaves made up about a third of the overall density. I was thinning too much!

I invented a new method just for this kind of grassy seed heads, clipping about half way up each stem, just a tiny bit above the node where the largest live blade was attached. Most of those blades were left in place, and the overall density was preserved. I call this new style of pruning “partial grass deadheading” because it leaves the lower half of the seed stalks in place while removing the business ends.

The second kind of pruning was also brand new. Unlike the leaves of broadleaf plants, grass blades elongate as they grow. This is an adaptation to herbivores that bite off the ends of the blades. Such shortened blades can still grow longer. But there are no grass-eating herbivores in most suburban gardens, and the blades of the bunch grasses tend to grow longer and longer. I realized that for these grasses to be trimmed in a healthy way I had to become that herbivore.

Having recently experienced a haircut, I realized that I could use a method similar to what my friend Janice had done to my head. I swept my hand across the ends of the over-long blades, scooping up a manageable handful and gently tugging outward. Then I clipped off the ends of all the blades in that handful, depositing the cut off bits into the debris bin. By repeating this operation all around the outer parts of the clump, I was able to reduce the lengths of the blades without creating a sheared off look. I call this pruning method “bunch grass haircut pruning.”

With the seed heads gone and the blades shortened all around, the bunch already looked much better. But the overall size of the bunch was too large and there were lots of old blades and stems around the base. It needed to be smaller without sacrificing the naturalistic look. I used a variant of undercut pruning. Reaching deep under at the base, I grabbed a small tuft and clipped it right at ground level, repeating and carefully observing the results all around the base of the plant. The density near the base was reduced, creating more of a fountain appearance and less of a pop-pom.

Here is the result on the bunch grass in the “before” picture above. Notice how much more visible are the small silvery plants near the base:

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Out in front of the house at the base of a tree, there are three more clumps of the same grass. Applying the same three pruning methods, these clumps were rapidly tamed. There is a “before” picture at the top of this post; here is another:

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Let’s have a closer look at the rightmost clump before pruning. See how dense are the seed stems, and how long the blades:

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This is how these grasses looked after the pruning. What do you think?

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I love pruning as much as I love creating deep nature gardens. I am available to prune almost anything in your garden (except mature trees, for which we bring in a licensed tree surgeon). If you are not near us, I am also available through online media (email or real-time video) to coach you on how to prune your plants.