Insights

All things compost and soil

Ben Tyler

What do you do and why?

Regenerative Agriculture and Biological Soil

About seven years ago I was introduced to the concepts of permaculture and how we can live lighter on this earth while still living in an urban environment. My brother John Carroll of Prana Produce in Braidwood NSW, a regenerative market gardener, suggested looking at Milkwood Permaculture as a good place to start. I completed an induction to permaculture course and began making my way through their reading list and was drawn towards ideas of market gardening. This led me to complete another course into bio intensive market gardening also run by Milkwood with the amazing New Zealand farmer Jodi Roebuck of Robuck Farm, Taranaki NZ. Jodi introduced us to the teachings of one of the forefathers of intensive growing, John Jeavons of Ecology Action. John is considered to be the father of the modern biointensive gardening movement and Jodi had interned with him. Jevons, an advocate of the double dig method of bed preparation and offset plantings to protect the soil from weathering, also looked at how to create a farm with minimal outside inputs. Jeavons believed in creating good quality compost to be added in the initial bed preparation and when adding aments between crops.

Another of the books on the Milkwood reading list was Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels. This book really opened my mind to the mutualism between the plant, microbes and nutrients that can be made available in soil everywhere. Still drawn to concepts of market gardening, I started looking at the other market gardeners such as Elliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier, Conor Crickmore, who have used innovative processes to increase production and profitability on small biointensive market gardens. This further led to researching broader practises such the regenerative grazing practises employed by such farmers as Nicole Masters, Gabe Brown, Alan Savory and Charlie Massey, to name a few. In all of these practices the authors highlight regenerating soils and building soil microbiology. Many of them mentioned the work done by Dr Elaine Ingham from the Soil Food Web.

Dr Elaine is an American microbiologist, soil biology researcher and founder of Soil Food Web Inc. She is known as a leader in soil microbiology and research of the soil food web.

Composting at Pocket City Farms

In March 2020 while in COVID -19 shut down, I completed the foundation course with the Soil Food Web School and was in search of a space to start building large piles of hot compost (thermophilic compost). I had volunteered at Pocket City Farms urban farm in Sydney at different times over the previous years, and thought it could be the perfect spot to start. This 1200m² farm has outreach to the community and connection to people that were interested in market gardening. During these uncertain times it has provided me a safe space to set up the infrastructure to process 1000L+ of compost per week. We have built a small but dedicated group of volunteers that turn up to contribute to the many tasks that help make quality compost.

How do you do it?

When aiming to produce bicomplete compost we aim to produce a compost that has a high number of beneficial microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, flageolets, nematodes and micro and macro arthropods. By using the thermophilic processes, we are ensuring all parts of the compost pile have been held at over 55°C for a minimum of 3 days, as this will kill human pathogens and the unwanted seeds in the starting materials. When the correct ratios of materials and moisture are added in this process, there will be little odder and will not attract vermin or insect pests.

Currently we are using locally sourced materials such as farm garden waste, clean food preparation vegetable scraps, chippered leaves and cardboard, wood chips, spent coffee grounds and silver skins (from the roasting process) and spent grains from local microbreweries. Presently we have kept food waste to a low percentage but will be looking to increase in the future, while monitoring to ensure there are no negative effects.

When making these piles we soak the brown materials overnight, chop up any oversize green materials, mixing with the high nitrogen material in the correct proportions and then place in a wire container to allow for good air circulation. Temperatures are monitored twice a day and tracked to ensure they are held for the correct amount of time. Compost can also get too hot and cause internal combustion, but this can be avoided by ensuring temperatures do not exceed over 78°C and by punching holes in the pile with a wooden pole to create chimineas to cool it down. From start to finish this process can be completed in as little as 18-28 days, or when it reaches ambient temperature.

When completed it can be used as compost and incorporated into garden beds, compost extract soil drench or aerated compost teas as foliar sprays. When applied to the soil or plant it will assist to increase microbial and fungi population and diversity. It will contribute to the nutrient cycling in the soil and unlock the foods required for the plant to thrive. Healthy plants will resist pest and pathogenic attacks.

Our next project will be to use the finished compost to make potting and seed raising mix for the farm, a portion of which will be available for sale to the local community.

Our most productive lands are not in the remote countryside but in our cities because we have the people. One of my favourite stories of hope is Michael Ableman’s Sole Food Farm. Every town needs a farm like Ableman’s to grow food, jobs & hope on the urban frontier.

If you are interested in volunteering to assist with compost production or would like more information, contact Ben Tyler at ben.tyler@me.com.

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