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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!

This sheltered little nook, surrounded by rocks, is in full shade most of the time. During one of the rare times when the sun reaches this corner, the camera caught these sweet little liverworts in the process of covering the damp ground.

Liverworts are among the most primitive land plants on the planet. They first grew on land some 472 million years ago, during the mid-Ordovician, before the first animals crawled out of the water. The Wikipedia article has lots of fascinating details.

Little more than flat sheets of cells, these ground-hugging, bright green shapes are not actually leaves, although they may look like them. Each “leaf” is called a thallus, a word for a more or less undifferentiated plant body. Together, they are called thalli.

In the above close-up, you might be able to make out the fine, stippled texture of the surface of the thalli. The tiny raised dots are the reproductive structures. When there is liquid water, the plants release motile male cells, which swim through the water to the waiting female ova. The liverworts also reproduce prolifically by vegetative division and growth, rapidly covering the ground in good conditions.

A nearby rock has some patches of nice green moss and some light gray lichen thalli. Both are also quite primitive. The moss is more advanced than the liverwort, bearing leaflike bracts on tiny stems, while the lichen is a symbiotic combination of algae and fungus.

Look around in sheltered, moist undisturbed parts of your garden. Are there any liverworts? They are a sign of a healthy micro-ecosystem.

One of the interesting features of the ecogarden under construction at Elizabeth’s place is the presence of chickens.

Aside from being a steady source of manure, they also roam the yard frequently, scratching around for worms and beetles and such. You can bet this activity will have a huge impact on the garden’s ecosystem!

Frankly, this is a challenge. As an ecogardener, I take great delight in undisturbed micro-landscapes. Sweet carpets of leaves or moss are just plain impossible in a chicken zone.

I can’t exclude the chickens, but I can introduce design elements that restrict their influence.

It’s pretty hard to scratch around in the ground when there are lots of angular rocks. With hills and valleys including rough stone walls and piles of rocks, they can be restricted to a smaller part of the garden. The crevices in the rocks will turn into unique, dynamic little microgardens.

Some of the flatter areas can be liberally sprinkled with rocks of many sizes, once the basic shape of the landscape has been created. I see irregularly shaped areas of densely scattered rocks, conforming in some way to the shape of the landscape. Will the chickens prefer not to scratch among so many rocks? Delicate, interesting plants might survive there.

Isn’t she a pretty girl?

Another design element is the choice of planting. We can experiment with different kinds of tough-seeming plants, expecting the birds to tear up some or all of them. What survives, builds the new ecosystem.

The end product would be a kind of shrubby, rocky meadow with hills and valleys marked off by low stone walls. The undisturbed crevices in the walls feature lots of interesting plants. There can be an open pile of rough rocks, where many kinds of creatures can take shelter, plus a log pile where a different collection of animals can live. The chicken’s scratched-in dirt depressions would be visible under the bushes in the flatter areas, contributing to an overall rough, lived-in feel.

Template for a chicken-resistant zone?

It is essential that the chicken’s freshly dug dirt holes must fit seamlessly into the overall artistic effect. It cannot be contrived – the chickens must be allowed to create the art, while we plant, design, and build around them. Eventually there will be areas where they do not go. Where they do scratch around, the local flora will be adapted and healthy by natural selection.

What kinds of California native plants do you suggest for this part-shade shrubby meadow with rocky hills and valleys, where the chickens roam free? Please add your ideas in the comments!

Next: after a summer break, we return to Elizabeth’s garden

This post is part of a series documenting the design and installation of an ecogarden at Elizabeth’s place. Here some previous posts in the series:

Elizabeth’s new ecogarden

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

You might say that any garden is an ecosystem garden — after all, bees and bugs visit the flowers (if any) and earthworms dig tunnels in the soil. Isn’t that an ecosystem? Yes, a traditional grass lawn is an ecosystem. But the kind of simple ecosystem that exists in a typical suburban garden is a pale imitation of the wonderful diversity that is possible. A true ecosystem garden (ecogarden) is way more than just a collection of plants in the ground. It is a vibrant, resilient community of plants, animals, and other living things. It is not just about beautiful flowers, or even about beauty alone. It is a genuine contribution to the health of our planet. In a way, it is even a spiritual statement.

most modern gardens are not ecogardens

It is a great tragedy that modern civilization has idealized the sterile, neatly clipped sort of garden seen in millions of private and commercial properties across the world. Boxy green hedges and perfectly flat, unmarked lawns, maybe even with a carefully aligned white picket fence. Rectangular beds of flourescent, massively enlarged flowers, hyper-stimulated into a one-time burst of cancerous abundance by purified, chemically activated super-fertilizers.

Any deviation from the desired “perfection” is quickly cleaned up. Noisy, exhaust-spewing air blowers are used to remove “ugly” fallen leaves, restoring the pristine bare dirt under the bushes. Other powerful, noisy, polluting machines are used to trim the grass and hedges. It’s all very easy to do with our Great Modern Technology. Thousands of small and large companies have made this kind of “gardening” into a highly profitable line of work.

It’s the Western Civilized Dream, born in the Victorian era. We conquer nature and create a tamed, predictable, neatly edged landscape around our homes. It’s like a big outdoor room, an extension of what is found inside our houses.

a return to our roots

An ecogarden is nothing like that. In its deepest heart, it is a return to our ancient prehistoric roots. It’s a way of creating a tiny chunk of real nature, no matter how small. It is more than just a beautiful work of living art. It is a powerful way to help the planet preserve its troubled ecosystems. All around us, species are losing the fight against toxins, pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction. By creating even the smallest refuge for diverse life forms, you help preserve Gaia. This is our responsibility as the caretakers of the planet.

untended nature is not an ecogarden

As beautiful as a natural mountain stream, seashore or prairie might be, it is not an ecosystem garden. It is an ecosystem, but not a garden. To be a garden, it must be tended by a human being, maintained in some way.

However, untended nature is definitely the inspiration for all kinds of ecosystem gardens. In order to nurture many kinds of life forms, an ecogarden has to provide situations where these life forms can be comfortable, healthy, and able to grow and reproduce. An ecogarden can contain many such environments, or be entirely of one sort or another.

Whether it is a flowering meadow, a shady forest floor, a shrubby thicket, a quiet freshwater pond, or a coral reef, an ecogardener tries to create a close resemblance to the natural conditions for the garden’s inhabitants.

that perfect balance

Ideally, an ecogarden is the perfect mix of nature and garden — it is a collaboration between a human and nature, controlled in some ways by the human for a high level of diversity, vigor, and beauty, but also very much its own creation, growing largely on its own.

An ecogarden is supposed to have a natural look. It looks like it grew right there, because that’s (almost) exactly what it did. It is a chunk of nature, a semi-controlled wilderness, yet it is still pruned and maintained by its human caretaker for maximum beauty.