Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Art of Leaving Leaves

One of the most common questions I get asked here at Soilutions is how do I keep mulch clear of leaves during the fall.  After I stifle my desire to remind people that they are working with nature, not with a living room rug, I tell them the truth - there is no quick answer.

When you commit to using organic mulches (e.g, wood and pecan), you are subscribing to a paradigm in which you value the return of organics to your soil.    This means accepting a little bit of life’s messiness.  It’s OK.  Because it’s really about supporting a dynamic ecological system that performs a remarkable function in your life, not about outdoing your neighbors.  Aren’t there more important things to do? 

The great thing about using organic mulches is that, aesthetically, they are much more forgiving to leaf litter than gravel mulches or other hardscapes. A smattering of leaves over your mulch is a delightful, ephemeral design contrast brought to you by Mother Nature each Fall at no additional cost.  If you combine a little bit of an attitude adjustment with some sensible design and management choices (the perfect combination for any sustainable relationship), you will enjoy a multitude of benefits, including improved soil health, increased biodiversity, reduced air particulate and noise pollution, reduced methane emissions from landfills, and perhaps most importantly, more time for things that really matter. 

Here are my top 5 suggestions for managing leaves on organic mulches:

5.       Design your walking areas and paved areas at a higher grade than your planting areas; the wind will blow your leaf litter into your planting areas so you don’t have to do any work at all.

4.  If you crave a tidy appearance, you can always top dress your landscape with a fresh layer of organic mulch after your leaves have fallen and broken down a little.  What seems like a lot of leaves now will be a lot fewer after they get wet and start to break down.  In most cases you will see little to no trace of those leaves by the time your garden is ready in the spring.  Personally, I wait until the elm seeds have fallen in the spring to top-dress.

3.  If the amount of leaves overwhelms the space you have on the ground, there are several things you can do. You can lightly rake them up and move them around your yard for maximum benefit.  (Yes, it’s true – you will not be able to grab every leaf without raking up your mulch.  If this concerns you, refer back to #4.)  If you have chickens, throw your leaves into the chicken coop and watch them quickly scratch it into the soil.  If you don’t have chickens, it’s another great reason to get them.  Leaves also make wonderful mulch for your vegetable garden; use them to protect and feed your garden beds over the winter. Stockpile your leaves for later use instead of going out and buying organic mulch such as chips or straw during the growing season.  If you have a compost bin, use it as your “brown” material to balance out the nitrogen rich food scraps you’re adding.  Another alternative is to dig the leaves into trenches.  They will be out of sight and slowly break down into your soil.  Better yet, dig out a space for a worm bin, and rake the leaves into there.  The worms will appreciate their fresh bedding material.             

2.  If you have leaves on your lawn, mulch the leaves in place using your lawn mower.  Once exposed to moisture, the small leaf particles will quickly disappear, and the microbes in your soil will convert their stored energy into food for your grass.

1.       Get over it!  It’s life - a miraculous and beautiful cycle in which plants convert energy into food and return the food to the earth to support the healthy soil ecosystem necessary for life.  Rejoice that you have a piece of land to call your own, and you get to participate in the process!


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

 Below is a portion of a conversation currently occurring in our office circles. For someone who struggles almost daily to inject a small bit of beauty into my life, I found the truth, the passion, and the elegance of this to be inspiring.

"The desert is beautiful, ParaĆ­so sin agua.
    It's our home, yeah? What have we done to it? Why?
    The way we treat our home, you'd think we hate it. We let wind blow it away.
    We run it over, pave it, let the rain cut it to pieces, toss junk in it.
    We build things here like we don't know where we are.
    It matters how we do things here. It's like no place else on earth.
    Put a house in the wrong place, the desert will eat it. You will pay.
    Put a road in wrong place, it will cost you an incredible amount of money.
    It's not forgiving of our greed, our wayward desires.
    Walk into in your street clothes and see if it forgives you.
    You'll hear about lots of emergencies, the economy, aliens, the government,
    terrorists; emergencies are how we talk to one another now.

    You can't stop the aliens or the terrorists yourself, the government is out
    of control, and what are you going to do about the economy?

    There is one thing you can do right now. You can take a shovel and a rake
    and do something meaningful in half an hour that will last for lifetimes.
    You can help put this place back in order.

    You can heal it. You can put the rain and the wind where they belong. You
    can treat this place like home, and it will love you for it.

    We are the sand whisperers. You are too.

    We love this place, we know it well. We care where the rain goes, how the
    land moves and why. We've put decades into understanding how all this works,
    and every day we live for it. It's who we are. It's why we are here.
    Call for help, we'll come."

One more reason to love the place I work.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Check out this Blog

I don't read newspapers anymore. I only read the "fiction" part of the New Yorker. I don't even read the Alibi, I just do the crossword puzzle in 5 min. stints while waiting for soccer practice to end. But I read blogs. I like blogs because they can offer really good perspectives into what people, normal people, are doing, thinking, living.

There are pretty-picture blogs, how-to blogs, medicinal blogs, irate and revolutionary blogs, travel blogs. There are all kinds of blogs out there. I don’t really care what a blog is about. I like to read well written thoughts. In fact, I prefer to read well written blogs about things I don’t know; blogs about compost are generally pretty boring.
My current favorite is

Shawn Turner is an artist and a swimmer (and other things, too, of course) from the Sacramento CA area. I had the good fortune to swim with him this winter in the San Francisco Bay for the 24 hour Swim Relay ( 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much time with him because, well, we were all swimming an insane amount (for me, anyway) in (admittedly welcomed) frigid waters.

 But I started to follow his posts and subsequently his blog after the event. Now I look forward to his bi-weekly observations. He writes about swimming with an artist’s eye; or about art from a swimmer’s perspective. But most of all he shows himself to be one of the rare people in this world that stops at various times to observe what’s occurring around him. 

What does this have to do with compost or Soilutions? A couple of things actually: in case you get bored with ill-written ramblings about something of which many of you are intimate—I offer an alternative; or, most of you have figured out that what makes this and any endeavor worthwhile is diversity.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To Age is to Learn

Just recently I took up painting again. I will often go weeks without painting a thing. But when I do finally address a canvas, I have a fervent, slap-dash style that allows me to apply color passionately without much mind to technique. This method soothes me. Painting is a way for me to make sense of the world, my world, whether the physical or the emotional. There are always big splashes of color and lots of texture from the globs of paint.  But there is no definition in my paintings.
As a youngster, a car meant freedom, freedom to move fast around my environment, and maybe expand that environment. I’m not a gearhead; my first vehicle was a stock ’66 VW bug (cherry red, by the way). But I did get speeding tickets. And I did expand my environment. Again, there was no definition in my movement, just so long as I was moving, I was happy.
When I started at Soilutions, I worked in the yard. I didn’t care what I did, just as long as it was hard and new. I wanted to unroll hoses as fast as I could. I wanted to build a pile higher than the previous guy and load a truck more efficiently. I wasn’t sure why, and I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to absorb all the new sounds, smells and textures that abounded.
Now, I notice subtleties. By noticing subtleties I am beginning to learn.
Yesterday I changed the oil in my car.  I removed the drain plug, and the warm oil seeped onto my latex glove. I watched in awe as the first of it gushed out, splashing and spilling. The pressure decreased, the steady stream slowed to drops, then droplets. I thought each droplet represented a mile driven. While watching the last of the chocolate brown used oil drip from the drain pan, it occurred to me how things had changed. Like the oil, where I once gushed through my environment, I now drip slowly. I drip through the side roads.
At work, too, subtleties have proven very instructive. The timbre in a customer’s voice is useful in indicating their level of confidence. There is a minute olfactory difference between grass and manure. I try to notice the first cranes’ arrival.  And in doing so, I have learned to do my job to my satisfaction.
 I have grown better at what I do because I have paid attention to details. So in order for me to improve as a painter, I will need to slow down and let my brush slip slowly over the canvas. Let the brush define the subtle edge of rocks, trees and visages.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is there such a thing as organic compost

A friend of mine wanted me to address a question she fielded one day: "Is there really such a thing as organic compost?"

There are two kinds of organic: one is biological, one is a fabricated label. The former refers to  the carbon content of a material, the latter refers to the  method and the level of chemicals used in the growing process.

In terms of the biological sense, ALL compost is organic. It is the accelerated biological process by which microbes physically break down the biologically organic aspects of a material. But, as all things are a mixture of organic compounds and inorganic compounds (water for example is inorganic---it has no carbon; a tree is made of carbon, water, nitrogen, and minerals) there are inorganic residues in all composts. In the industry, we use  a test called the "organic matter" test to determine what percentage of the finished product is organic, what percentage is inorganic (minerals, i.e., "soil"--in other words, little particles of sand silt and clay.) so for this reason, NO composts are completely organic.

Confused yet?

As for the other type of organic, the one subject to labels and laws, there are certainly many ways to achieve that level of certification. It is the same process by which you certify your tomatoes--know the origin of everything you put into it. That means verify the "organic-ness" of  the feed for the animals that contribute the manure, verify the carbon source. In extreme cases, insist that the chainsaws used to cut the tree branches use organic vegetable oils rather than petroleum based oils. There are some materials that are specifically banned in "organic" composts--biosolids mainly but also construction glues and paint.  You then have to document it and submit those documents to the certifying organization for approval.

I think the bigger question should be directed towards the quality of the compost. It is well documented that compost is an excellent bio-remediator. It is used to clean contaminated soil, it is used to increase the infiltration properties of soil, it is used to increase the bio-diversity of the topsoil layer. But that same remediation property also pertains to the materials that go into it. The  microbes present in the compost pile don't care if the carbon they are eating is a carbon from a certified organic tree or from petro-carbons (diesel fuel). If a pile is fully composted and cured and managed properly (the specifics of its ingredients were taken into account and the recipe tweaked accordingly) there will be every benefit to the soil, whether the initial ingredients were certified organic or not. By the same token, if a pile is built using only certified organic ingredients but mismanaged, not fully composted, nor cured, it could  prove temporarily detrimental to your over all project.

The decompostion of organic matter is going happen regardless of whether we want it to. Some areas of the world have the right environmental conditions to make this rapidly occur naturally. The southwest does not. Until we collectively reach a good balance of organic material in our soils, I think our time and energy should be spent correcting that imbalance. The semantics of whether it's organic can come later

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rain Ruminations

So I got a little bit of rain last night at my house. It was all the things that rain in the desert are: cooling, aromatic, tempestuous. Rain in the desert is also strengthening, alleviating, and magical. Rain has some effect on us that opens the creative spirit. Of all the things rain in the desert may be, substantial it is not.

 I awoke thinking how unbelievable it is to me how many calls I get this time of year from people putting in lawns. I appreciate a small lawn for the kids to play on, or even one to create a comfortable place to entertain. But the calls I get aren’t for these types of lawns; a small lawn doesn’t cover 2500 square feet. I almost always bite my tongue and walk them through what I think they should do to maximize their efforts. But sometimes I lose it. When someone calls and says that they plant a lawn “every year and it always dies”, I lose it. I don’t think I’ve ever called a customer an idiot (out loud). I‘d like to think that I’ve changed a couple of minds through conversation. I’m pretty sure that after talking (what I call) sense, a customer has hung up and called me some harsh words. 

 One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repetitively while expecting different results. Another definition might well be planting a lawn in the desert without an irrigation system installed. Or planting sod over the shallow thirsty roots of a mulberry tree. Or planting seed but not keeping the dogs or the kids off it for a year. Or sowing seed and forgetting to water it. Or planting a lawn and later blaming everything else for its failure except the fact that THERE ISN’T ENOUGH WATER HERE TO SUSTAIN A LAWN!

I then got to thinking that there are so many environmental variables in this climate, that it surprises me we aren’t all insane. Consider what it takes to grow a tomato… sun, water, soil. That’s pretty much it. In the rest of the world, we provide the tomato, and nature provides the rest. Not here. Here, we have too much sun so we have to shade our tomatoes (the nursery tag says “full sun” because they were grown in Arkansas or California or some such),  or there’s not enough sun to ward off the late May  freezes ( I used to have neighbor who swore she “had snow here on the fourth of July). There is never enough water, but when it does rain, it comes with such force as to physically damage the plant. Our soils aren’t that bad, but everybody swears it’s the source of ills. I’ve heard “crappy Albuquerque sand”, and “that really compacted sandy dirt.” So they tinker with it, adding all sorts of non-sense until the whole web of micro-biota is sent out of whack. Then the accusations start flying. 

But I digress…

My favorite word is petrachor. Look it up. I’m fairly certain it’s a real word.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chemical vs. Biological

Last week I attended the annual Organic Farmers Conference held at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid. The conference offers a chance for me to see and thank the many local farmers that support us year 'round. I always feel humbled when farmers who, in my eyes, are rock stars, go out of their way to thank us and tell us how much they appreciate what we are doing. There is always plenty of good coffee and amazing snacks. This year we had fresh local organic bread with local organic fruit jams and jellies. Someone at the NMDA likes us because their placement of our table always ensures high traffic volume. And, I always strike up a fast friendship with the occupants of adjacent tables. Over the years, lots of faces come and go, but there are those steady few that, year after year, plug away, doing what they love to do and, thus doing well. If you don't think your dollar spent at the farmer's markets is appreciated, I strongly suggest that you go to the conference next year and listen to their comments. everyone is grateful for the opportunity provide the community with fresh healthy food. This year I found myself in the middle of a conversation with the director of the Rio Grande Community Farm. He is quite the experimenter; I first became involved with them when he was implementing a large scale no-till program at the farm. He is currently researching the benefits of high quality compost tea. I have known intuitively and seen anecdotally, through my professional career and personal endeavors, the benefits of compost tea and compost extract. For those that don't know, a "tea" is a living, oxygenated brew of various ingredients, while an "extract" is not living, no longer oxygenated. One is a biological product, one is a chemical product. Most gardeners and farmers are concerned with the chemical makeup of the soil. Does it have sufficient nitrogen levels, what's the pH, EC? These are chemical questions that can be chemically addressed. Not to be confused necessarily with chemicals, but rather the chemistry of the soil make up. Very important, to be sure, but not the only aspect of soil health and, I would argue, not the most important. Organic farmers are, generally, more concerned with a healthy soil ("A healthy soil grows healthy plants") then are conventional farmers, but both are constantly analyzing, adjusting, and amending the chemical content of their soil. But when you talk of compost tea, you find that there is a strong biological aspect to the health of a crop. Each plant has a coating of protective microorganisms just as every human is covered with billions of germs. Each germ is keeping other germs in check. When our germ count is out of whack, we are sick. Same is true for the plants and soils. When we address biological issues with a chemical remedy, we find ourselves exacerbating the problem. "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly..." She eventually end up swallowing a horse? and who-knows-what-else? in order to ameliorate a simple fly problem! I read in a recent New Yorker that the scientific world is starting to map germs. They are finding that the intestines of humans have very specific populations of germs. When an anti-biotic is prescribed, that balanced population is thrown into turmoil and it often takes weeks or months to recover. If we use those examples and apply them to food crops, the same holds true: a broad application of a general pesticide kills more beneficial micro-organisms than detrimental ones. Destructive micro-organisms always seem to be more opportunistic; the sudden absence of beneficial micro-organisms allows them to reproduce rapidly thus exacerbating the problem...