Sunday, February 19, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/19/06)

When my wife, Gretchen, passes my composters, a sky-hook is attached to her nose. She makes comments beginning with phrases, such as "Why did you?" and "What on earth are you?" or the word "Ugh!" However, she likes the results. The other day she stamped her foot, flaired her nostrils, flared her red hair, and cougared her green eyes when she demanded that I give her some compost for her flower barrel. The final accolade came when she said, "You know, this stuff of yours really smells sweet."

At first my composters got out of hand and really stunk, but now that I’ve gotten the hang of things they don’t stink anymore. Early in my composting career I used too much nitrogen material. During those stinky times Gretchen called me "Fly Face" because of the flies hanging around the composters. She didn’t know she dated herself to 1960 when Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy was in vogue and General Eisenhower was President. "Fly Face" was a criminal with flies circling his face.

Last fall, things came to a head when I began composting on top of the ground. The bins were full, and I wasn’t about dispatch my tomato and zucchini vines and sunflower stocks to the cruel machinations of Environmental Services. I dug shallow trenches on the vacant vegetable beds, dumped in garden clippings, coffee grounds, and tea leaves, and covered them with soil. Soon they were cooking, slowly.

Then Gretchen remembered that her beloved grandmother, Flo, a Kentuckian who plugged rattlesnakes and rodents around her house with a shotgun, dropped kitchen scraps on a pile in her back yard. Grandma Flo had a great vegetable garden. Aha! Now, since it was good enough for her Grandma, it was good enough for me. However, I wouldn’t recommend Grandma Flo’s method unless one craves a rodent-feeding site.

So by messing around I found a slow-cooker way to compost besides hot bins from the city. It was trenches on vacant vegetable beds. Even in winter microbuggies toil away in hot bins sending up clouds of steam and yielding mature compost about every three weeks. The trenches filled with yard clippings crock pot all winter long, yielding their goodies in the spring.

More sophisticated, slow-cooker gardeners build three-sided bins, usually of concrete blocks or spare lumber. They toss organic material in the bins, turning it now and then, producing great compost in the spring, summer, and fall.

An indoor form of composting is called vermicomposting or worm casting which is not fly-casting. First, get a wormery, either home-made or store-bought. The home-made variety can be made from a small plastic container with the approximate dimensions of 14 inches wide by 21 inches deep by 9 inches high. Drill a couple of holes in each side and cover them with a screen. Duck tape holds the screen in place. Since the worms like it dark, keep the lid.

Next, shred newspapers to three times the side of the container. Then in another container dampen the shredded newspapers and put them in the bin, making sure the dampened newspapers aren’t soppy and matted. Watch for puddles on the bottom. Now, that the wormery’s beds are made, it’s ready for guests.

The best guest worms are red wigglers (eisenia foetida), not earthworms. They can be purchased on the Internet or by phone through the mail. One Internet site is Two pounds or two thousand worms are best for the size container mentioned above.

The worms must be fed to get castings. In and out. They like minced left-over vegetables and fruits. No meat, dairy, fat, salt, or citrus. Small amounts of coffee grounds and soil are good for the worms’ gizzards.

Worms like air so the wet newspapers should be fluffed now and then. Keep the wormery away from vibrating contrivances. The temperature is best kept between 68-72 degrees as in a garage or under a sink.

After a few months, harvesting the castings is a cinch. Move all the material to one side of the womery, add fresh newspaper to the other side, and feed on the new side. The worms will migrate to the new side and the castings can be harvested from the old side.

Composting with worms is a sure-fire hit with small children. Most children like the squiggling, wiggling things. They like growing things, too. In addition to home entertainment, the worm castings are very rich and are useful for enriching the soil, especially in window sill gardens.

Now, that we are in a fearful drought, compost is the way to go. By adding organic matter, the soil retains moisture effectively as well getting fertilized.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, February 12, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/1/05)

My wife thinks I’m crazy. She may be right. Sometimes she is although not as often as she thinks. The reason for her diagnosis (obsessive-compulsive) is that I dug up my four sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) plants, potted them, and took them in the house. Gretchen doesn’t understand that craziness is often a sign of genius. As a matter of fact, she elicits sympathy from her friends all while clipping off sweet basil leaves.

One sweet basil went in the garage on a wall next to the den under a grow light, another next to a south-facing, sliding glass door in the dining room, and the other two on the south-east-facing window sill of my study. All of them are flourishing.

Next, I potted a dill (Anethium graveolens) about five feet tall. Gretchen thought I had really lost it with the dill. First, I put it in the garage under the grow light. Then I moved it into my study where my wife has no decorating and design authority which has not prevented her from voicing her opinions and making occasional clean-sweep sorties.

However, seeing it’s airy elegance and grace, she allowed me to put it in the dining room next to the sweet basil. She even harvested some of the dill seeds for the tomato juice she was making from our excess tomatoes with her mother’s vintage Foley Food Mill. The sweet basil and dill are additions of beauty, aroma, and vitality to a winter’s room, especially set against brown fields autumned of green.

Next, I potted my parsley (Petroselinium crispum) and set it on my window sill. However, since it’s a biennial in it’s second year, I don’t hold out much hope for it’s future. Then I took an already potted mint (Mentha piperita) in the house. However, it suffered a couple of nights outside in the cold under 32 degrees. I’m now nursing it back to flourishing health. Next, I potted the chives (Allium schoenoprasium) where it sits next to my printer. Finally, I potted the cilantro (Coriandrum satrium) and brought it into my study. It’s doing well. I had to stop my transplanting, containerized project because I ran out of window sills permitted by Martha Stewart Redux.

What did I inadvertantly do right? We have a humidifier sitting in the dining room apparently supplying enough humidity for plants, humans, our three-legged dog Roxie, and various spiders. Also, in the garage I carelessly left an open bucket of water. The plants get enough humidity and sunlight (real and fake). The ones in the dining room are doing best.

They were doing so well that I suggested to Gretchen bringing the three containerized tomato plants from the garage into the dining room. She replied, "I’m putting my foot down on that one. No!" I didn’t see her foot hit the floor, but I did see a throbbing jugular and flared nostrils, hear a high-pitched voice, and see her green eyes turning cougarish. I dreamt that night of turning the dining room into a greenhouse and the garage a dining room. I kept my dreams to myself aware that genius is often unrecognized.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/30/06)

After a triple bypass and retirement Gretchen and I moved to Flagstaff, a new house and yard. When I shoveled the dirt, my heart sank. I felt the same way the Friday my drill instructor shredded my weekend pass when I was 17. Rather than a hot date, I policed a barren parade ground for cigarette butts. On maneuvers, I had suggested to Sgt. Staatz, an irascible, surly, sour, harsh, saturnine battle-tested SOB, that his infantry tactics were wrong based on my high school ROTC courses. Eventually, I become a Sgt/Maj, Special Troops, becoming in part that which I earlier despised, an experience both disquieting and humbling and, also, an experience not uncommon.

Sullen and surly, my yard was volcanic detritus dumped by the contractor on top of native clay. Patches of clay showed through the debris, like concrete patches in peeling linoleum floors. My yard had the cast of that barren parade ground. As Yogi Berra said, it was deja vu all over again.

Sharpies with toothpicks stuck in the corner of their mouths happened by selling dirt and rocks from a dump truck. I wasn’t inclined to buy either dirt or rocks. My soil was up to me.

I knew good soil. While studying for my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I served a country church amongst the corn, cattle, swine of Illinois. Sadly, at the time I was too busy with Plato and Saint Augustine to treasure black loam and peat bogs.

The forest floor behind our house is covered with slowly decomposing pine needles. After raking off the top layer, I mined the old bottom duff. Knowing the trees needed duff as much as I wanted it, I raked the top back.

For texture, I began mixing my soil using volcanic ash for lightness, clay for heft, and old pine needles for body. Sadly, I had no silt. By divine providence I encountered Hattie Braun, Chief Master Gardener, and Ellen Ryan, Flagstaff’s Head Composting Honcho. Their message: composting is essentially returning to the soil that which it has given us, making it rich. I bought two composting bins from the city. Eureka! Now, I began making my soil rich.

Key to the science of composting is the 3-1 ratio by volume of carbon to nitrogen. Charts about the 3-1 ratio in organic materials are easily available. Nitrogen, commonly called green, inspires microbuggies to work on complex carbon compounds, called brown, making them available as simpler nutrients for the plants. Precisely measuring the ratio of carbon to nitrogen is difficult with a shovel. Horse manure, kitchen scraps (no meat), brewery barley mash, clippings from the garden (no dog poop), dumpster diving treasures, buckets of coffee grounds, and the like, make measuring approximate. Science becomes an art with a palette of three senses, feeling, smelling, seeing. No tasting and hearing.

Tiny microbuggies mining the carbon deep in the compost pile work up a sweat, steaming the pile. Without nitrogen the microscopic critters will quit as the pile goes cold. Too much carbon without enough nitrogen "slow walks" the composting as the microbuggies loaf. Too much nitrogen which is volatile paradoxically causes a loss of nitrogen, resulting in smelly ammonia and buzzing flies.

Microbuggies need moisture, but beware of the dreaded extremes: wet and soggy. Wet will drown the microcritters. Nitrogen materials tend toward moisture while carbon materials tend toward dryness. Also, water is heavy, seeping down the pile, making soggy bottoms and dry tops. Turning the pile is a cure for soggy bottoms. If the pile is wet, it’ll sour and draw flies. Sour stinks with the sweet rank of putrefaction, not the rich aroma of decomposition. A good rule-of-thumb for measuring moisture is the feel of a washcloth firmly wrung out, moist but not wet. Usually, the organic stuff thrown in the composer will supply enough moisture, but if it’s dry, add a little water. If it’s wet, add some dry stuff like vintage horse manure.

The microbuggies mining deep in the compost pile need oxygen so the pile has to be turned now and then to get them fresh air. A pitch fork is best for stirring up an aerated whing-ding composting microbug-o-rama.

Good compost smells like newly turned earth in the spring, looks like dark loam, and feels like crumbles. As with martial arts, composting draws on nature’s energy rather than assaulting it with chemicals.

Raised beds rich with dark lustrous soil, producing bounties of vegetables and flowers, are composting’s rewards along with a sense of presence at the creation.

By the way, the generic scientific names for these microorganisms are aerobes, thermophiles, and bacteria.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith