Managing Compostables for a Healthier Eco-system

  • Juncos spend much of their time on the ground
    Juncos spend much of their time on the ground

From November through February my chipper pile grows steadily bigger. I begin cutting back perennial plants and shrubs as the fall blooming cycle ends; long, fairly straight stems go to the chipper pile, more twisted branches go to various brush piles along a low wooden fence. The leaves of Coast Live Oaks drop all year long, and many of them get raked off the pathways because layers of these leaves can be quite slippery. I drop buckets full of leaves onto the brush piles, where they drop down through the twiggy stuff to the ground and decompose over time.

Brush piles like this are wonderful cover for a lot of the ground feeding birds, and also benefit the raptors – both hawks and owls – because of the great cover for the rodent populations. Brushy areas also create nesting sites for the Juncos. These little sparrow relatives are very successful breeders, even with nests right on the ground! The lovely brown, tan and grayish tones of their plumage are perfect camouflage.

Lots of smaller plant trimmings go to a huge huglekulture pile, where I also add food scraps occasionally. When I know to expect rain I’ll spread a lot of shredded paper on this pile; but only when I know the rains will wet it down to keep it from blowing around. 

Shredded paper looks like snow on the Huglekulture pile!
Shredded paper looks like snow on the Huglekulture pile!

Choice food scraps feed the red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) in my upward-migration worm bins. The worms like the same foods we do, but they eat the parts we don’t, like banana peels, melon rinds and damaged outside leaves of lettuces. Other food scraps, along with soft garden trimmings like those from vegetables and the spent flowering stalks from mint family plants, leaves, and stable sweepings, break down into rich compost in one of several bio-stack compost bins. When I grow tomatoes, I’ll often dig a pit close by to compost materials right next to these heavy feeders.  

Red Wiggler worms like all the same foods we do - and they eat paper, too!
Red Wiggler worms like all the same foods we do - and they eat paper, too!

Very little organic matter actually leaves my property; but a lot of it gets moved around. The only plant materials going into the green can are non-natives like the Santa Barbara daisy, toadflax, and verbenas, or Rosemary branches, which are way too hard to go through my small electric chipper. The chipper is a home-style McCulloch brand, which can handle soft wood up to about an inch and a half in diameter. It has served my needs well for more than twenty years. When the pile gets big enough I hire help to get it all put through the chipper, and end up with a balanced combination of ‘greens and browns’ to use in building compost piles or as a mulch around perennial plants.

Every year most of my planted areas get a top-dressing - either a low nitrogen compost or an early-screened mulch. Once areas are planted I never dig down to turn over the soil; all plant nutrients come from the top down. Doing otherwise is actually counter productive – and unnecessary work - in that it totally upsets the soil food web. There are countless creatures living in the soil, all of them converting organic matter into plant available nutrients.

The soil is the treasure chest of any garden; a soil rich in organic matter and soil organisms not only provides the nutrients that plants need, when they need them, but also helps fight plant pathogens.

Cutting Back

Timing can be really important in tending the garden; nature waits for no one, and there are times when the necessary work is simply easier to do than it would be later in the season. I like to get to all the herbaceous perennials such as California fuchsia, goldenrods, and asters before the new growth starts. The old flowering stems should be cut down to the ground, and it’s so much easier to do this when you can step on the nascent growth without damaging it. Old flowering stems often still contain some seeds, so I cut them up a bit and use the old stems as a rough mulch in other areas where I’d like to see these same plants take hold.

This is also a great time to divide spreading perennials. A basic rule of thumb is that plants that bloom in spring or early summer (yarrow, hummingbird sage, and skullcaps) should be divided in fall; and the fall bloomers (goldenrods, asters, and California fuchsias) should be divided in early spring. Once a clump of plants has been removed from an area, I fill in with compost and some soil amendments if necessary. The clump that has been removed can be divided further, and either potted up, or replanted in a different spot in the garden.

Fall blooming California Fuchsia 'Schieffelin's Choice' - photo by Suzi Katz (www.suzikatzgardendesign.com)
Fall blooming California Fuchsia 'Schieffelin's Choice' - photo by Suzi Katz (www.suzikatzgardendesign.com)

A Bird Bouquet

I grow a non-native aster, the Michlemas daisy, which I love, and so does every pollinator anywhere in the vicinity. It blooms late in September, often on St. Michael’s Day. Its flowering stalks with prolific lilac blossoms can be seven to nine feet tall. I’ve never bothered to collect the seeds, but I’ve noticed that in January, Anna’s hummingbird will often collect the chaff from the spent flowers for nesting materials.

I like to cut this plant back fairly early, but always felt I was depriving the birds of an important resource. The solution was to set up an old tomato cage which holds a ‘bird bouquet’ rich with seeds and chaff. The aster stalks go there, as do dried up stalks of a native perennial sunflower (Helianthus californicus) and yellow-evening primroses (Oenothera elata var. hookerii). There’s usually still a few seeds left in the sunflowers heads, and also in the tidy upright capsules of the primrose stalks. A wonderful added benefit is that the really pithy sunflower stalks offer potential nesting sites for some of our native bees.

Yellow Evening Primrose sets lots of seeds for the birds
Yellow Evening Primrose sets lots of seeds for the birds

Perennial Wildflowers and Native Bulbs

With very little rainfall in November and December the perennial wildflowers have been slow to start growth. In year’s past I’ve often been able to cut just a few little stems of Milkmaids to bring the sweet fragrance of their flowers into the house around the holidays. But this year they are just starting to bloom in January, and the buttercups aren’t far behind.

Ground Iris grows in open sunny areas
Ground Iris grows in open sunny areas

The ground iris (Iris macrosiphon) are pushing up new green blades through dried up leafy clumps of last year’s growth. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is also greening up in late January; they are distinguishable from the ground iris at this stage because the much smaller clumps of new growth are free of any spent leaves.

Blue-eyed Grass is a delicate Iris family native
Blue-eyed Grass is a delicate Iris family native

The first of the native bulbs to show new growth are usually the Dichelostemmas, and these new shoots are trimmed back by the deer. Often times the deer also eat the flowering stalks, and later on, the seed pods, too, of those they missed while in bloom. But it doesn’t seem to adversely affect the populations of these geophytes in the meadows close to my house. There are two species in the meadow, which also show up in my garden areas, Blue Dicks (D. capitatum) and Ookow (D. congestum).

I’ve grown a number of these bulbs from seed, which takes a long time. Five years along and most of the bulbs are not much bigger than a good-sized pea! There are numerous challenges to growing the bulbs, especially because I have so many animals around who seem to take an interest in all that I grow.

I start a quantity of seeds in a clay pot, and within two years they are large enough to thin out and pot several of the tiny individual bulbs (which might be the size of a grain of barley) into separate three inch pots. During the spring the raccoons come into my nursery area to hunt for tree frogs; they can make a real mess as they literally pick up the pots in a flat and toss them around to try to get at the frogs that hide out in the moist areas in between and under the pots. When the new growth starts to show, the deer nibble at it. Then the squirrels have their ‘digging seasons’; they are either digging out bulbs to eat, or digging in acorns to store. And even the turkeys get in on the whole act of disruption; they like to pick out the plant stakes and toss those around. After that it’s hard to know for certain which species is in which pot.

But the real difficulty comes during the dry summer months; I try to duplicate the conditions as they would be for geophytes in our dry season. In the ground it’s most likely not totally dry, and the soil is probably fairly cool. So before I place my flats of small pots in the shade of a large tree, I give them a good watering. Then I cover them with a light burlap cloth, and am sure to tuck it in carefully all around the edges. They will get no more water until the rains start.

Soap Lilies – Beautiful and Very Useful! 

The new growth of soap lilies (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) also provides forage for the deer, and in the wild, the flowering stalks are almost always at least partially eaten. This plant, when grown with protection from the deer is absolutely glorious in late summer, with flowering stalks that reach truly dramatic heights and hold hundreds - if not thousands - of small white lily flowers. Then flowers open in the late afternoon, and are closed by morning. No doubt the main pollinators are moths. The seed set is often prolific, and I can find dozens of small seedlings in areas close to these mature bulbs. Soap lilies grow in full sun to part shade and need no additional water or much care other than removing the spent stalks during spring clean up.   

The Native Peoples used these bulbs in many different ways. They were an important source of carbohydrates, and were roasted to be eaten, much like a potato. The starchy bulbs also made a good glue, and the rough, hairy covering of the bulbs made good brushes. The bulbs contain some toxins while raw, and could be slightly crushed, and thrown into a still pool in the stream where the chemical constituents would temporarily stun the fish, making them easy to catch. The toxicity is not permanent, the fish left in the water recover; and there was no toxic effect for humans once the fish is cooked. 

The Native Peoples were excellent stewards of their land and the natural resources; apparently they could hit just the right spot with their digging sticks to harvest large, mature soap lily bulbs, but still leave the base from which new growth originates.