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May 2016
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What is mulching and what are some of the advantages ?

Got a lot of weeds and don’t know what to do, but worried that these weeds are taking away the nutrients that your regular plants may be needing (and this is not being paranoid, some weeds grow must faster than the plants you desire, and hence the nutrients that you weeds are sucking up are those that your plant is not getting).
Also, with all the effort needed to remove weeds, is all the bending affecting your back ? Are you spending more time at just removing weeds rather than on efforts to enrichen your garden ?
Been told that you need to make your soil more organic rich, more porous and make the water drainage better ? Don’t know how to do it ?
Living in a hot environment, with the sun scorching your plants and the soil ? The direct heat of the sun can take away all the water in the soil that you added only a few hours back. How do you ensure that the water in the potting mix remains for longer, lasts till the next watering. The soil drying up is back for the microbes and insects in your soil, and soil that is getting dry too often means that your roots are suffering from shock, as well as the fact that your plant is trying to just survive rather than focus on growing.
You have a lot of leaves and other stuff that is being pruned or cut or otherwise dropping in your garden, and you are wondering about how to dispose of all the material (can make compost, but that is also effort). How about so any grass clippings, what do you do with those ?

If you feel affected by one or some of these factors (or for those who really really need it, you are affected by all these factors), something that you should really be considering is mulching. Even though the word sounds a bit strange, many gardeners know it and those that know it and have used it, swear by it.
So what is mulching. Well, to be as uncomplicated as possible, mulching is the laying of a material over the soil, in multiple layers. Let me take the best possible example. You have a lot of dry leaves, and are living in a area with a hot summer. The soil in your pot dries up during mid-afternoon from the morning soaking and the leaves start wearing a droopy look. This heating of the soil worries you, since it can affect the roots, it can affect the microbes in the soil as well as harm useful creatures such as earthworms. So what do you do ? You take those dry leaves, take them to your pot, and cover the soil surface with a layer that is around 2-4 inches thick (after a one time removal of the weeds that are present there). This may seem a bit weird to you, and I have come across people who look at the planter and mention that they like the pots to be neat and clean, “Why am I so lazy as to not remove the leaves from the surface of the soil”. I look pityingly at them (after all, I believe I have done something great), and wonder whether it is worth the while to explain to the person.

Anyhow, continuing with the explanation – when you have added so many dry leaves to the soil, look at the factors outlined above and start ticking wherever you see it as relevant.
– Adding dry leaves on the soil ensures a surface that is not comfortable for the weeds to grow (since there is a layer above the heads of the growing weed plant).
– Reduced number of weeds, and hence you have more time to spend on the gardening enrichment experience.
– These leaves will eventually decompose and all this decomposition will go directly into the soil, making it richer and also more porous. All this is useful compost for the soil and for the plant. It is also a slow dispersal compost, that acts over an extended period of time.
– In hot weather, this layer of leaves helps reduce the temperature of the soil by a few degrees, incredibly helping the plant. This layer on top also ensures that soil does not dry so easily, which is an incredible help to the plant. In hot areas when you combine this tactic with shade nets and others, this ensures that you are reducing the harmful impact of the heat on your plants.
– Mulching using organic waste ensures that you have a ready use for all this organic waste. Suppose you have done a lot of pruning and have many leaves and thin branches, you can use these for mulching. It would not be wise to use thicker, woodier branches for mulching, but the thinner ones that are more green can be used.

However, when spreading the organic waste for mulching, ensure that you leave a bit of space around the plant stem (say 1-2 inches), since decaying organic material can cause rotting of the stem.

In the next post, will explore another issue related to mulching (TBD).

Composting: Rain water got into the pit – What to do ?

Making compost is a fairly easy task, and once you have started making such compost at home, it can be done fairly easily. However, for the newbie, it seems a daunting task initially (or seems to become one when some problems occurs with the composting process). The secret to making compost is very simple, there are many tips, but the simple paramount one is about ensuring that the compost is neither too dry nor too wet. One big problem that I heard from somebody was about their compost container being open (the lid blew off during a gust of wind) and they had too much rain water entering the compost pile. Now, after a couple of days, the compost seemed to be still very soggy, and they could see maggots making their way inside. The first worry was; was the compost not good, did they screw something up, should they dump all this and try again ? The first task is to reassure them that in most cases of composting, there was no such thing as the process becoming irreversibly bad, and that quick corrections can happen and there are some tips to ensure that this situation does not get repeated.
This is really more relevant when you are composting in a container of some sort. If you have an open pile, too much rain can make it soggy to some extent, but if it is exposed to the sun, it will dry out pretty soon. If the pile gets wet and it seems wet for some days, then just turn it over with a rake, add grass or some other brown stuff (too many options for what to do add – sawdust from untreated wood, dry leaves, shredded newspaper or cardboard, pine needles (although need to balance with some lime to retain the pH levels) and similar stuff) while ensuring that matter is not getting clumped together.
If you are preparing your compost in a container, you would have made multiple holes in your containers for aeration purposes, right ? You could even have some holes in the bottom from where you collect the wonder juice ‘leachate’, right ? In which case, the rain water that has fallen into the pile will make its way out. If the rain water is collecting inside the compost container even when there are holes, then there are remedial measures that need to be taken. Some parts of your compost pile have become matted together and are not letting the water through, which is a bigger problem, since it means that there is not enough space for air to move around and composting will become much slower. You need to break up these matted together parts of the compost pile and ensure that there is enough space for water and air to move. Further, add shredded newspaper and cardboard or dry leaves to ensure that moisture levels come down within a couple of days and its under control. Do not get into an over-control mode and add too much of dry stuff otherwise you will end up on the other side, with the pile becoming dry.
The bigger part of this is that you should not worry too much that you have made some big mistake, or that something has happened which would cause you to throw away your under-preparation compost. Simply get onto the internet, look up your problem, and you will find your solution, or if you know somebody who has been preparing compost, then the same solution.

Whether to use cardboard as a part of making compost ?

The idea of whether to use cardboard as an ingredient for making compost has been very confused over the years ? There are people who advocate using cardboard as a part of compost, while others totally stay away from it and claim that there is no point of using cardboard, that it does not add anything to the compost. Well, should you ? Difficult question. I would like to say ‘it depends’, but most probably would find a book flying towards my head. So, let me just write my experiences about compost from the perspective of cardboard.
Before starting, some description of cardboard. Cardboard is used to refer to many different kind of material, and you would have experience of many of them. Three of these are:
1. Corrugated cardboard (can see images of this here at Google Image Search (click here))
2. Waxed cardboard containers. These are containers similar to the corrugated ones, but with a difference. Here the cardboard can be a bit less thick than the corrugated one, and in most cases, one of the sides of the cardboard container have a shiny / waxy finish on top. The finish is smooth, and much different from the corrugated cardboard.
3. The even thinner ones. These don’t even feel like cardboard, more like thicker paper. Used for smaller items, such as these cake packing (link here)
There can be more varieties, but these are enough for the discussion. So what do you do about using them in compost ? Well, for starters, the corrugated ones, as described in point 1 above, is ideal for the purpose of composting. You need to shred it in small pieces (I normally leave it in sizes that are not more than the length of a finger) and I have found that within a month of the composting process, these pieces mostly vanish. On the other hand, there are people who keep them in water for upto a day, or use a shredder to cut them into much smaller pieces to add to the compost. All these steps to make the pieces of cardboard smaller before adding to the compost pile help, but even just shredding them into smaller pieces will work (as long as your compost pile is working fine).
For the other varieties, I have also put them into composting in the past, and have had varying experiences with some of them. For the ones described in #3 above, in many cases, they have a thin plastic sheet that forms part of their structure. Once you think you are done with the composting and it is prepared, I have found that there will be bits of plastic in the compost (along with small bits of cardboard attached to them). It is effort to remove these bits of plastic (I know that plastic in the compost will not really cause significant harm but I like to ensure that I can remove whatever contaminants as possible) from the finished compost, and depending on your ability to spend this effort, it may not be worth it to use this kind of cardboard.
For the cardboard described in #2, there is a worry about the type of waxy coating, as well as the type of coloring used. I am apprehensive about having these in the compost, and hence, if the packing is thick, I try to strip the inner part of the packing which is similar to corrugated cardboard, while the coating side is sent off for regular recycling.

Why to use cardboard ?
– The compost pile requires a steady supply of brown material apart from the green part which is contributed by kitchen and garden waste. If there is enough quantity of dry leaves available, then that is ideal; but a lot of people do not have excess to material such as dry leaves or other organic dry stuff. In which case, can easily use cardboard for the same, shredding it into small pieces. Cardboard adds much needed carbon content to the compost.
– Cardboard has another advantage. If there is too much water in the pile, if it is more moist than you would like, adding cardboard to the pile ensures that this water gets absorbed; so within a range, one can use it for controlling the water content of the pile.
– When this shredded cardboard is mixed with the kitchen waste, the decomposing cardboard helps to ensure that there is aeration inside the pile (the microbes within the compost are getting air). If you use only kitchen or garden waste, then as it decomposes, it starts clumping together and reduces the availability of air). With cardboard in between, there is enough space to ensure that there is air for the process to remain aerobic.

Steps to create compost at home using a clay pot and kitchen waste (and a couple other waste items)

There are numerous ways of making compost at home (we are ignoring larger scale community practices or those used by farms), concentrating on what an individual family can do. If you search on the internet, people have posted many ways – Some use clay pots, some use buckets, some use barrels, some use specialized equipment sold for making compost, some make wire meshes, some even just use simple piles on the ground; and the incredible thing about making compost – all these techniques work. Here is a simple technique that I have been using for the past many months, and it seems to be working perfectly well to make good quality compost.

You need a good clay pot (with a hole in the bottom) and a regular supply of household kitchen waste (but not using cooked leftovers, or items left over from making chicken / beef / fish items). I also use cardboard (not coated, or glazed – just simple cardboard) as the brown component of the compost pile (the kitchen waste is the green portion of the compost pile).

1. Line the bottom of the clay pot with shredded cardboard and/or dry leaves (or pea shells)
2. Start filling up the clay pot with kitchen waste (I don’t exclude anything, so vegetable / fruit peels, egg shells, pea shells, everything goes). While adding up this kitchen waste, I shred cardboard (excluding the shiny / waxes / glazed ones). Can use dry leaves equally or even better. These shredded pieces should not be more than a finger in size
3. Mix these up inside the pot.
4. Cover with a section of newspaper and cover the clay pot with something rigid so that rats / lizards don’t get inside.
5. Repeat step 2 with fresh kitchen waste upto step 4
6. Every few days, use a metal or wooden stick to shake up everything and ensure that there are no clumps inside (waste tends to form a clump if there are no gaps – shredded cardboard and degrade both help to prevent formation of clumps)
7. I have not had to add water or other stuff, since the waste releases enough liquid; if it seems to dry, up add water, and if you have buttermilk, add that.

Kitchen raw waste and shredded cardboard as a part of the compost pile

8. If there is too much gooey or watery, add shredded paper / cardboard / dry leaves
9. If there are maggots, don’t worry, they will go away as the compost develops.
10. Keep monitoring, when you see the material having broken down into fine substance and no bad smell, you need to sieve and get the fine compost.

Sieving the compost to remove larger unprocessed items

The final ready compost after sieving