Farm Life: Preparing the Harvest, Part 3, Compost

I have written previously about the land formation on which we garden in the Appalachian Mountains and our process of starting a garden area with potatoes.  The net result of this layer of shale and layer of potatoes is that we harvest about 5 bushels of rocks for every bushel of potatoes from a new area of garden.  The locals call this “sour” ground, for which our breaking and building up process will over time yield surprisingly “sweet” ground.  The solution is compost. 

We started out thinking that we would have a small cottage garden along our front pathway about 15 years ago.  I plotted out a area about 5′ by 15′, built a 3’x3′ frame with 1/4″ mesh wire with the idea that I would turn the ground by digging out a shovel’s depth, sift out the rocks and return the fine grains of soil to the flower bed.  That process lasted about two weeks before I tossed out the sifting frame.  Fist to football sized rocks accumulated faster than fine grains.  But, with some effort, we ended up with a 5′ x 3′ pile of dirt 2′ high.  It looked like a fresh grave, so this initial garden became nicknamed “The Cemetery Garden”.  This also suggested that trying to garden in the mountains would kill us.  A neighbor claims that he cannot start a garden up here until he has a tractor.  I guess he does not own a shovel.

We persisted though, moving to our next attempt with rock walls (of which I wrote recently) to terrace our gently sloping ground.  This allowed for backfilling, rather than just digging.  Being in the country we had no lack of material with which to backfill.  It was just a mater of hauling it from point A to the garden, point B.  Point A turned out to be the ditches and culverts, filled with half decayed leaves, along our dirt road, and our neighbor’s barn.  Organic mater + shale clay – rocks + time = garden soil.

A truck load of moldy hay to cover the garden in Winter

Our next process was to try double-digging.  This is a technique in which you dig, two shovel depths down, a trench at one end of the garden.  The material from this trench is set aside.  The next trench’s soil is turned into the first trench, minus rocks.  You continue across the garden this way.  The last trench is filled with the soil taken out at the beginning.  Now in shale, “two shovel depths” is really about 3 to 4 inches down per year. Thus, over half a dozen years, we worked our way down about 15 inches.  Also, to compensate for all the rocks we took out, we added manure and leaves, which we turned in during the double digging.

End of the season garden plant go to compost

This is about when we came across the concept of hilling potatoes with leaves, of which we have more than an ample supply.  The idea is that we put down a layer of manure and leaves on a new area for the garden in the fall.  In Spring we place our seed potato slices in this layer, without digging into the shale, then cover them with a layer of silty leaves from the road ditches.  When the potato stalks are up about 6 inches, we collect a truck load of leaves and “hill” them around each plant, with the top leaf branches above the leaves.  Every couple of weeks, we add another layer of leaves, until we have about 2 feet of leaves with potatoes growing in them.  Come fall, we use the potato rake to pull down the hills and harvest the potatoes (and rocks, which somehow grow up into the the leaves).  With the potatoes harvested, we rake the decaying leaves back over that new garden area, add some manure, and let it be for the winter.  Come Spring, we double dig this before planting something else in this area.  Anyone need to work out in the gym?

Bedding from goat barn with lime (white stuff)

As our farmer neighbor has recognized that we are regular barn cleaners for him, he has now gone to hauling us a few loads of manure each Spring when he uses the Bobcat to clearn his barn.  This builds up our compost pile, which is behind the garage, and about the size of a truck now.  With lots of additional leaves and worms, year to year, we have a constant supply of new soil to add to the layers of the garden.

We do add a few other elements to round out our soil.  Given the clay content of our shale, we add sand occasionally to help keep the clay from becoming too sticky.  We do have some sandstone on our mountain, and we have found certain breakers along the road tend to fill up with the sand that runs off from these sections of the road.  Another trip with the truck and drywall buckets to harvest this free sand.  Also, as our soil has a high acidity level, we add lime to chemically bind with the soil until the roots of alkaline loving vegetables suck it up to make tomatoes and other tasty meals.  As we burn wood to heat our cabin, we also have a good supply of ashes at the end of the heating season.  We do not put this directly on the garden, as the ashes tend to prevent seeds from sprouting.  But, layering this in the compost pile with leaves and manure helps to add post ash.

We started with a pile of coffee grounds and salad trimmings.  We now have a complete fitness and nutrition program.

What is your green workout?


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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12 Responses to Farm Life: Preparing the Harvest, Part 3, Compost

  1. Mother Suzanna says:

    What is your green workout? Driving over to the Smart Station and filling up my plastic bags with compost and twice a week going to the Senior Center’s Body-Core Class. Such is life in the City! Alas, not nearly as entertaining as “life on the mountain”.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      When you consider your square footage of garden space vs our acres of trees, your workout is grand. I read recently, that some university studied lawn pesticide break down in municipal compost. The found that 1) most of the material is leaves, thus the ratio of grass clippings is low, and 2) the heat of the compost pile (often above 160F) broke down the pesticides. Good use of local tax dollars (my opinion). The senior center groups are another good use of local tax dollars.

  2. Barneysday says:

    Back in new England, the soil was rich, but much as you describe, really rocky. For every potato we harvested, we harvested at least as many rocks!

    Great post…

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I think that those NE rocks are heavier than ours. Do you have any garden space in your Sierra Nevada homestead?

      • Barneysday says:

        Small plots for native flowers, and going to do a small maybe 10 X 20 vegi garden next year. Problem is the area get very hot, constant sun in summer. Still thinking about what to do with it.

      • hermitsdoor says:

        Do you get a lot of heat coming up from the Central Valley? CA water dynamics are different that East Coast, November to March wet season (hence your recent couple of feet of snow) vs year-round, sporadic thundershowers. I’ll be writing about water soon. Meanwhile, start amending the soil. Maybe my cousin can find a good source of manure in the valley to haul up your way.

      • Barneysday says:

        one thing the city has here is lots of manure, a bit of which comes from the livestock! Avg annual rainfall is 7 inches…we used to get that in one storm on occasion. People still insist on acres of green lawns and are fighting against water meters.

      • Barneysday says:

        temp averages about 15 degrees cooler than the valley. Lots of breezes coming up the canyon—of course howling rainstorms travel that same route in winter.

  3. The Vicar says:

    I have this mental image of the Hermit, with his gardening boots laced up, strolling around a steaming pile of leaves and manure, calmly exclaiming “I love the smell of fresh compost in the morning” (ala Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now).

    In the townhome we rent in the city, there isn’t much opportunity to go green. Last year we bought some organic fertilizer to put on the flower beds. Before we could go through it all we had moths flying around our garage courtesy of Dr. Earth’s Rose and Flower Fertilizer.

    I have convinced the landscape company to put the yard clippings in the yard waste dumpster instead of the trash with the assurance that I will haul the bin to the street every Monday evening for the Tuesday pick up. Apparently neither the homeowners or the garbage company care enough to see that the dumpster gets emptied otherwise. The other people in our complex find it curious that I would take this on as they were happy not knowing what happened to the yard waste. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Ignorance and bliss for a generation or two. Our dogs like to stand on the compost pile. I hate to think what they eat off it of it when I’m not looking.

      • walkingsmall says:

        they eat the half-rotten apples – Sadie takes the cores I give her, makes her own compost-hole and covers them over, then goes back days later, delighted at the ferment-y taste

  4. hermitsdoor says:

    Bella has a favorite toy, from puppihood, that she burries and uncovers every couple of years. Oh, so tastey after a few seasons underground.

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