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The Recycling Gardener

Updated on January 28, 2015

Your Host: A man outstanding in his field...

My history as a gardener

Yep, that's me. All the photos here are my photos, all rights are reserved.

My dad gardened when I was young and perhaps that's what started my interest. Now my second son gardens, and we enjoy different aspects of it. He likes spiney things, I don't.

Mostly what you will find here are "how to" if not "why to" with what you have at home.

Mind you, the principles I will use here are applicable worldwide, and from container gardens to large industrial farming, and even in aquarium settings, but you need to refer to my writings there as that field needs some fine tuning.

The long and short of it is that the organic systems in place in this earth created a self-sustaining system where everything is recycled, all the time. It is man that screws this up by sequestering waste as if it had no value.

I realized that I understood this when I was young when I started to bury things in the soil, under rocks, and so forth. Dad helped there also with two apple cores on a car trip from San Diego (i.e. "home") to Arizona or Nevada.

Dad ate one core completely. I was probably six at the time and I thought about what happened to the core of the apple and realized it had to have useful components. Much later I would realize these included crude fiber, water soluble fiber, proteins in the seed, antioxidants, and so forth.

But the second core went out the window in a desert area (lots of that in our southwest) and I realized that before long a rodent would find it and consume it, then return those nutrients to the soils. Nothing goes to waste.

OK, OK, OK, maybe it just dehydrated and say there, but assuming some moisture (which it contained) some bacteria or fungi, which it had, and which dad added while eating, and from the environment into which it was thrown, the decay would be fairly quick, if not complete, and the smells both when it landed and later as it decayed (this is important) the likelihood of a rodent finding it was high.

When I started to garden I immediately realized that adding anything organics of nearly anything to a soils, especially when we water them, improved the soil.

Well, dad left, but I kept up the garden and soon appreciated growing things and recycling organic and inorganic things (decomposed granite, for instance, is inorganic).

Moving into our current home some 27 years ago I found a garden not only neglected but much of it covered with gravel. This would not do at all, and so, having a handy deciduous tree (a white ash, Fraxinus americana) I started to bury leaves, and then other food scraps to feed the fungi, bacteria, and larger organisms in the area.

In a short time we have a jungle. The added fecundity and fruitfulness was apparent in just years. Here I am speaking of real fruit as we have oranges, tangerines, and a lemon tree.

So what kind of organics came from the house? The most visible would be garbage, which needs to be buried, but also ash from the fireplace, including, when possible, charcoal, but coffee and tea grounds, eggshell, and nearly everything else, but that is the thinking I will put below. We will start with Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO), that is, how to recycle nearly everything.

As a partial disclaimer: Loren Nancarrow was a local news anchor here in San Diego and we not only became friends, but had decided to produce a book together. He had written several books with coauthors including Dead Snails Leave No Trails (and a revised version), Dead Daisies Drive Me Crazy, and The Worm Book: The Complete Guide to Gardening and Composting with Worms. While I was an Adjunct Professor at San Diego State University in 2009 we started to discuss the possibilities and the discussions continued until Loren was diagnosed with a swift and deadly cancer in mid 2013 and died at the end of that year before we could agree on the final format. While I don't know that he wrote anything to that end, I did. Some of what you will see below was written by me for that purpose, but was never published. However, we both loved the soil, and organisms therein, and gardening in a holistic manner, here using that word in the old way, meaning to consider the entire ecosystem, not in the modern way as if the earth is somehow alive (i.e. "Gaia").

To clarify for both sides: The earth is a large dead rock traveling through space which is the home to all known organic life forms, and together they make up an incredibly complex web of life, which is very had to fully comprehend, but very easy to operate in if you simply pay attention and think a little.

Shall we?


My Orchid Cactus, Epiphyllum

Gardening Experience

We all have different levels of experience, how about you?

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My Garden

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My Patio, Orchid Cactus and Star Jasmine. I keep a lot of ornamental plants. This is my front patio, early spring.Neoregelia (Bromeliad). Yes, I put a lot of organics into every soil mixture even in pots.Aristolochia gigantea again in my front patio. The common name is Giant Dutchman's Pipe. The flowers measure 16"My front yard illustrates the fecundity which can be generated with heavy use of organics to feed the bottom of the food chain, really a food cycle. Yes, those are Christmas lights hanging in the photo!
My Patio, Orchid Cactus and Star Jasmine. I keep a lot of ornamental plants. This is my front patio, early spring.
My Patio, Orchid Cactus and Star Jasmine. I keep a lot of ornamental plants. This is my front patio, early spring.
Neoregelia (Bromeliad). Yes, I put a lot of organics into every soil mixture even in pots.
Neoregelia (Bromeliad). Yes, I put a lot of organics into every soil mixture even in pots.
Aristolochia gigantea again in my front patio. The common name is Giant Dutchman's Pipe. The flowers measure 16"
Aristolochia gigantea again in my front patio. The common name is Giant Dutchman's Pipe. The flowers measure 16"
My front yard illustrates the fecundity which can be generated with heavy use of organics to feed the bottom of the food chain, really a food cycle. Yes, those are Christmas lights hanging in the photo!
My front yard illustrates the fecundity which can be generated with heavy use of organics to feed the bottom of the food chain, really a food cycle. Yes, those are Christmas lights hanging in the photo!

GIGO: Garbage In, Garden Out

It has been said that a book is like a letter written to many people at the same time. Then is would seem to me that a posting is more like a note you hope a million people find online. So, to you, our unidentified friends, I write this rather extensive series of letters to help you understand a bid about how nature works, and more specifically how you can make it work better in your own back yard.

I am going to format this as a series of conversations, as some of these were indeed conversations, and then allow you to eves drop on those discussions.

Since I cannot know what you know nor predict which of our unidentified friends will read the letter we need to assume that you first can read, or you wouldn’t be reading this, and second that you want to expand your knowledge of gardening, or you wouldn’t have chosen a book on gardening.

Behind me actually sits a chest of letters my grandfather saved while serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII and after that, and just as reading these transports me back into time, almost an out of body experience, and into his world of three quarters of a century ago. I will attempt to take you on a journey first through thinking, but this is not a journey through time, as these truths are timeless, and so a thought journey, and then, hopefully physically into your garden where you can really apply these principals you improve your garden, recycle materials currently and literally being wasted, and thus reduce the waste going to the city land fill (as if it were not filled enough already).

So, let’s set out on that journey. A journey to a land that perhaps you have never been, or, perhaps you had envisioned but did not quite know how to set out on that journey. The journey can take the rest of your life, but not all of you life is consumed by it.

It is a journey of the mind and thinking about nature and how it works. Like all things, one we approach with our own presuppositions, whether or not you realize it.

We want to help you develop a philosophy of gardening, or, perhaps, a philosophy of how you view gardening, if not how you view nature itself.

Do you see nature as hostile to or cooperative with your efforts in creating a successful garden? You might ask yourself if you think you have a “green thumb” or a “black thumb.” But this can change, and maybe this is the very reason you picked up this book.

Keep reading; maybe we can change the color of your “thumb.”

This is a pragmatic philosophy, one that you can use in the garden every day to make a better garden. It is not a deep thinking philosophy that requires many hours of thought about symbolic logic, rather, a hands-on philosophy, something you can use every time you make something in the kitchen, or do something in the garden, one that can help you think about how to use things you already have.

Let me illustrate by asking a question: When you are finished with an apple core, or banana peal, do you think about how this can be used in your garden or simply throw it away?

You can use them to build your soil or keep buying chemical fertilizer from the nursery. Which do you do? Perhaps you do something between them, that is, you throw our your organic trash but then buy mulch because it is organic. This is a bit like stripping the B vitamins off of rice, that is, eating white rice, then buying rice syrup because it has those very nutrients. The same can be said with sugar. There are products that are simply dried sugar cane juice that are packed with nutrient, or you can by refined products then try to buy vitamins to replace it, or, say, molasses.

It is better to use a whole food product than one stripped of nutrients. This is something I find disturbing about a local health food chain that used to have that philosophy but where we find more and more refined or less-than-whole food.

The format will be conversational, as often, these have been used in conversations either with family or friends.

My "Secret Garden"

My "Secret Garden"
My "Secret Garden"

Garbage In, Garden Out: Kindergarten Philosophy

Diane: Remember the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingles Wilder? A hundred years before the dust bowls, the prairies were thick mats of dead plant materials so thick in places they could use it to thatch their roof. I wonder how we could get back the soils like they had back then?

RN: In kindergarten when we were planting carrots we used straw turned into the soil to help aerate it and add carbon back into the dirt. It really isn't hard to understand why. In the Little House books, they expressed the appreciation for the soils and some were hard to work while others were rich and dark, according to where they were. It is less matter of developing a deep science of soils than it is understanding a very simple premise, a basic soil philosophy.

We watched this old guy who used to be on PBS gardening and he always had dark rich soils and a philosophy of how to treat the soil. The word philosophy means the love of wisdom. So what is the wisdom of an old gardener? What can she or he teach you? How can you become that wise old gardener? What did we learn from the prairies and the kindergarten teacher?

First, let’s look back at the series by Laura Ingles Wilder, The Little House on the Prairie. We can observe one thing she wrote, and create a principal we can garden with.

The author describes in the book with the same title the rich dark soil of the Kansas prairies some 130 years ago. She was born in 1867 and grew up moving from place to place creating farms with the father making a better life.

Where did those soils come from? Not the base materials, that comes from the geology, but what made them dark and rich?

Think in very general terms; what happened there over the previous thousands of years?

They were grasslands where annual plants like grasses and others live and died leaving the plant material to decay. There were huge grassland fires, storms, animals like buffalo (actually Plaines Bison), birds, deer, antelope, snakes, and rodents all living and dying on the prairie all en masse with all the soil organisms, bacteria, fungi, worms, and so on.

Diane: Of course the native Indians lived, hunted, and killed many animals, and, while they used much of the animal, they did not always use all of it, and they left their waste in all forms on the prairies as well. They lived and died there also.

RN: Of course, large animals chew, digest, and process the grass using microbes, and leave fertilizer, often pushing then into the soil with their hooves. Birds eat grains and seeds then fertilize the prairie, and all the animals eventually died leaving behind nutrients for the microbes and subsequently the soil.

As Wilder describes, there are periodic grass fires that consumed thousands of square miles leaving ashes, and sometimes many dead animals.

Diane: How does that help?

RN: Well, surprisingly, it does! The fire leaves behind the minerals and some carbon mostly potassium bicarbonate, which the soils can use, microbes can process, and even this enriches the soil, particularly when trees are burned but not completely. When they are buried they create an unusually rich source of nutrients and hold nutrients in the soil. There was periodic flooding of areas that were close to the rivers silting those areas over and burying plant and animal materials, these left minerals from the silt, and both buried plant materials and carried some off which enriches the water.

I have relatives back there and they have these little wind storms that tend to low things around like trees and barns, but they spread seeds and animals all over the prairie.

Rodents dig burrows into this soil, burying parts and aerating the soil, and, at times, bringing plant material down into the soil, especially when the animal abandons the burrow and the burrow collapses or fills with water.

Diane: But it was all grass, and that is what the buffalo ate.

RN: well, yes and no, more than half of the plant life was grass, but there were many types of plants. There were about eight different grasses such as Switch grass, Big and little Bluestem grasses, Indian Grass, Prairie Dropseed, and so forth, but there were also rosinweed, saw-toothed sunflower, Bergamot, yellow and purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, cup plant, Asters, prairie dock, goldenrod, blazing star, Culver's root, mountain mint, shooting star, showy tick trefoil, and others, and so there was competition.

Different plants on the prairie have different effects. Remember, they too are in a competitive environment, but this completion, cooperation, and codependence is more complex that most think about. Legumes such as clovers provide nitrogen to the soil, herbs with strong smells like the allium family, sages, and mint family plants mask the smell of other plant helping to protect them from insects which prefer specific plants. Even the presence of other green plants shield an insect targeted plant by being there and being a similar color. Insects are known to see or smell a target plant then, if awkward fliers such as beetles, land to search for the targeted plant then be confused and give up because other plants were the same color, or masked the scent, and so on. Large plants provide shelter for birds who prey on insects, shade from excessive sun, and act as a trellis for some plants, especially vines. Deep rooted annual plants help break up the soils then die to leave their organic compounds in the ground where fungi and worms consume them adding to the water penetration and organic richness of the soils. All plans en masse increase the humidity of their environment which helps other plants, fungi, and beneficial organisms to grow.

Diane: Did you forget to mention allelopathic relationships?

RN: Well, yes, then there is allelopathic relationships. Often thought of as only competitive, or negative allelopathic relationships, many are beneficial and benefit each other by encouraging growth, or blooming, many attract beneficial insects.

Our neighbor for decades was aged and did nothing to her yard, so it was filled with weeds and grasses which became increasingly native grasses. The seeds spread around the area, which was not necessarily good, but so did predatory insects which fed on sucking insects from her yard. Butterflies proliferated, Lizards multiplied to eat the insects, so even this messy yard was beneficial in some manner.

So as we look out over the prairie it seems at first glance to be almost static, but at second thought, it is an entirely dynamic environment.

Diane: So, what was the result of all this life and death on the prairies?

RN: It produced a dark rich soil, a thick topsoil that has fed our country and many others for hundreds of years.

Contrast that incredibly dark rich prairie where life and death of animals and people took place for long periods of time developing this rich soil with the vast majority of homes in the developed world where the soils is usually removed and cement laid either as a slab or as foundation for a floor and the remainder of the soil on your property has pretty much been scrapped off. Perhaps sod laid down for a nice thirsty lawn to make it look green, but then fertilize and water the lawn to keep it green.

Diane: Well, thanks for that cheery thought.

RN: You do have to adjust this picture to the area you live in, and there are differing practices even from one area in a development to another, but in general, you get the picture that we went from soil, a complex of living, breathing microorganisms, organic and inorganic molecules to dirt, a mass of inorganic minerals with little organic matter in it.

Diane: My mom lives in the desert, how does this work for her?

RN: It is likely that the ground is more barren. Possibly a lot more barren than the rich prairies of Laura Ingles Wilder, and the lack of organic materials can be attributed mostly to the lack of water. But, if you have enough, you can add the water and the organics back into the soil to make it richer. Even if this is all you did, the soils will be improved. Have her put everything she can back into the soil, and water, when she can. Start in one location then move to the next when possible.

So here is the first part of the philosophy, a scientific part because it is based on observation, yet inducing us to a principal we can use for deductive thought later: The prairies were a place where life and death took place and the end result of all those organic things living and dying was a rich dark organic soil like we see in Little House, and unlike we see in most of our homes.

Without getting too much into philosophy proper and logic in particular, there are two things you can do with this observation of nature we have been discussing, you can treat it as modern science would and try to figure out how this happened, that is, after the observation you can work backwards to try to figure which elements enriched the soils and to what end (this is inductive reasoning), or you can develop a deductive principle from which you can work, that is a top down thinking principal, deductive reasoning. And here that is: when lots of different organisms live in, on, and around soils, they can develop into a nutrient rich soil, the very reason I suggested your mother put everything she could back into the soil.

"You did WHAT to your lawn?"

Yep, this used to be our front lawn... Oh, well.
Yep, this used to be our front lawn... Oh, well.

GIGO: Is that all there is?

Gina: Is that all there is? I mean, I can see the soil improving by adding things back into it, but is that all there is to it?

RN: Now wait a second, this is gardening, why bring up deductive (working from principles to deduce actions or answers, working from principles down) and inductive (working from observation and speculating a reason, working from observation up) reasoning? What does that have to do with growing petunias or carrots?

Sorry, but you ask a professor and they are going to give you some level of detail and learning, right?

Gina: But what I want is to understand how you got your soils so rich when your next door neighbor’s soil is really quite poor? My husband was a professor too, and our garden doesn’t look like yours. Give me your gardening philosophy, let me see if I can sell it to him.

RN: Well, this is what I mean about a gardening philosophy, and he doesn’t have a gardening philosophy. Modern science looks at the evidence and tries to figure out how it happened, or it induces and answer to a question. However, this only produced results that have some probability of being correct. That probability might be quite high, nonetheless, it remains a probability. Yes, it has been successful, however, billions of theories are thrown out after being disproved and the extreme complexity of nature is really only starting to be understood. One of those theories is that plants only need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium salts to grow. We know much better now. Yes it partly worked, but was far from the entire solution.

So, how about the other side of logic, deductive logic? How do you develop a deductive approach, a principal driven approach to your garden? How do we extract principals that can be used in most cases, if not every case? We just provided the most basic principle and one you can operate from quite successfully. How do you develop an argument, a top down argument, one that starts with a principle or premise and works down to an action? Can that be organic?

I would propose that this is the very best way to view the organic aspects of gardening. In fact, I would argue that this is the only way to look at it since modern science is so young, and, still, too simplistic, but that is how natural sciences work, that is, from the bottom up, from observation to hypothesis, to tests and finally to a hopeful explanation of those tests and observations. The soils on the earth have been around for a while and so has the life that depend on them, and which the soil depends on. It is a kind of loose synergism, a working together of the two where one is dependent on the other.

Science tries to analyze to simplify the understanding, but organisms are now known, because of that analysis, to be incredibly complex. When I was in college, some 1500 enzymes were known to be in the liver, now, more than that are known to be in every cell of the body. Our knowledge of complexity increases daily, but don’t believe me, Google the word “KEGG” and spend a few hours browsing the first result.

But we need not be paralyzed, unable to plant my carrots until it is fully understood because that is not likely to happen and my tomatoes are ripening even if I don’t understand every aspect of that process.

Diane: All this is fine, but how does this apply to organic gardening, or gardening at all? How does this apply to my soil and my garden?

RN: Like in high school chemistry, when you think of the word “organic” I want you to think of the word “carbon” because the two are inescapably linked. In fact, that is the very definition of organic chemistry, the study of carbon compounds and their derivatives. And it is the carbon and those derivative compounds, tens of thousands of them that contain carbon that make soils rich and healthy and, it is carbon that most soils need enrichment from.

We tend to package our carbon away and put it in the dump. Is this the best use of them? Do you usually throw the waste food and food preparation scraps in the trash?

Diane: Why, yes, of course, what else would you do with them?

RN: Ah, there’s the rub. The Ingles family moved out into the prairies into soil so rich that the primary difficulty was in preparing those soils by breaking up the various plants in the top layers, soils that for the next hundred years would prove to be one of the world’s most productive farmlands. The setting was in southern Kansas, and the debris from all those years of growth and death in and on the prairie was that thick rich soil?

Diane: So you want me to throw my waste food outside?

RN: Well, kind of, yes. Productivity! Now there is a word to think about. Productivity or production of living things, in this case, plants, requires nutrients, the chief of which is carbon partly because the plants need carbon to make sugars, which is the product of sunlight and photosynthesis, and partly because carbon combines with so many other minerals and nutrients to enrich the soils and prepare it for plant growth. You buy this at the store, but throw out the waste, then buy fertilizer for the garden, don’t you?

Diane: That is the way most people in my neighborhood do it, yes.

RN: Shame, you could use that food and waste to feed the soil instead of topping off the land fill. It is the fixing or capturing of carbon from the air and the ground, that waste, and so forth that is the very basis for most types of life on this planet.

But the Ingles practiced a very basic deductive plan for anything that died. They buried it knowing that nature recycles the plant or animal into the soil. And that is that very deductive principle that should dominate your thinking about your garden. We seemed to have forgotten this.

Diane: Is that all there is?

Yep, that’s it! Put everything back in the garden. This deductive reasoning incorporates most of what you need to think about when considering whether to put something into your garden.

I say “most” because there are some refinements. If your pet bird dies and you leave it on the ground to degrade, you might need to bury the bird deeper in the soil, but even the feathers are high in nitrogen but there are some unpleasant things that can happen if you don’t bury the bird, so there are some refinements to think about when you bury any given item, especially animals and especially large things, animal or otherwise.

But what you really need to know to start is to put everything back into the soil this is the gardening philosophy that will work quite well when practiced and done well. The devil is in the details, as they say, but think about what each thing you bury is going to be like as it degrades. Will it smell? Bury it deeper. Will it collapse? Make a mound of soil over it. Will it take some time because of its mass? Then you might cover it with bricks or rocks to remind yourself it is there.

But, yes, almost everything goes back into the ground.

Bearded Iris

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb

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