Those that participated in his workshop were so inspired, we asked him to share his thoughts.
What does it mean to garden or farm according to organic and biodynamic principles and practices and, how does this relate to composting?
At the Spier farm there is a lot of emphasis on protecting our natural environment. You may know that we have a lot of indigenous plants here and we are busy converting the vineyards to organic. Really the aim is to find more ethical ways of planting and harvesting grapes and other food sources.
Basically, organic principles and practices refer to methods that maintain a living soil that is made up of a diverse population of micro- and macro-organisms. Organic matter is maintained by using natural waste such as compost, animal manure and plant waste and by avoiding the use of synthetic pest control chemicals. Biodynamics, on the other hand, also recognises the influence of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal well-being.
In very simple terms, composting organically and biodynamically thus simply means a return to nature and a focus on how everything is interconnected.
What is composting and how can you make your own organic and biodynamic compost at home?
Composting refers to the conversion of plant and animal remains into humus, a by-product that helps to bind nutrients and minerals to the soil. Humus is also natural plant food and is absorbed through their roots, providing plant nourishment.
To create your own compost, you will need two large containers – one for collecting your organic waste (food leftovers from your kitchen) and another for garden waste, such as lawn cuttings. The next step is to create the right environment for micro-organisms to break down these materials into humus. To do this you need to make sure you have the correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. You can also add minerals such as kelp, wood ash and zeolites. Compost-making is not an exact science so I can only provide guidelines for this.
The reason for having the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is that it helps to retain nutrients is food for the plants. The carbon should be much higher than the nitrogen – about 25 to 30 parts of carbon to 1 part of nitrogen. If there is too much nitrogen you will detect it easily because your compost will start to smell of ammonia. If your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is right, your compost will be a dark brown to black colour, smell of forest floor, be moist and hot when you open it. Carbon comes from woody materials such as sawdust, grass clippings, straw, wheat and oats, or other materials such as seaweed, pig manure and bracken fern. Using a lot of these kinds of materials with your organic kitchen waste will ensure that you have high enough carbon content in your compost. If the nitrogen levels get too high, the plants will absorb the ammonia which will cause unbalanced growth.
The most important element, however, is water. The best way to regulate your compost is to have an enclosure in a shady area at the back of your garden with sprinklers above it. Your collected waste will be upended into this enclosure at regular intervals. Once you have gathered it all together, you can add kelp, wood ash and zeolites. At Spier we add manure into the water that is sprinkled onto the compost so that it spreads evenly, rather than having clumps of manure in our compost. You can obtain manure for your compost from a nearby horse farm.
Once all the ingredients have been placed together in the enclosure, mix it up thoroughly with a gardening fork. You can cover it with straw, creating a layer of mulch which will help regulate the temperature and moisture. Also make aeration holes by placing a few poles inside your compost enclosure. Once you have made your compost, you can remove the poles. This will ensure that you have sufficient oxygen flow. Within three days of making your compost, it should be about 70° Celsius. You can test this by opening up the compost and putting your hand inside – it should definitely burn! You can also test your water content by taking a handful of compost and squeezing it hard – it should drip, not run.
Your compost will take three to six months to form. Adding this to your soil will certainly lead to a improved overall soil condition in your garden and healthier plants and vegetables.