Bringing carbon down to earth – no tech needed

We hear a lot about the climate crisis, with good reason, as it is well past the time for warnings, and action is urgently needed. As individuals it can be overwhelming, anxiety producing, and easy to feel powerless in the face of a planetary scale challenge. One of the reasons I am passionate about working with the Permaculture Design Framework and enabling others to do the same, is its focus on solutions.

Design Principle 6 reminds us to Produce no waste. So what to do with kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, autumn leaves, newspaper, cardboard and used coffee grounds? Make compost of course! My preferred method is to use the materials to sheet mulch, creating layers like a lasagne to create a new garden bed or rejuvenate tired, nutrient deficient soil. The main ingredients for any good compost are nitrogen materials, carbon materials, water and air, and the microbes and invertebrates that do the heavy work. Don’t be too precious about it; anything that was once living will break down. Use whatever you have available nearby. You get bonus points if you prevent organic material from entering landfill. Layer it and keep moist. Most of all enjoy doing your bit to sequester carbon, and create living soils that hold moisture and feed your plants.

The space I had in mind was overgrown with rambling geraniums that had smothered the lavender originally planted, with a bit of kikuyu runner grass doing its best to invade. It is also prime realestate being north-east facing and sheltered, perfect for summer tomato crops. (If you’re in the northern hemisphere look for a south facing space).

The first job was to pull out the overgrown vegetation, most of which was fed to the goats (producing manure for future compost). This left a bed of very compacted clay, not much good for growing food plants. With heavy rain forecast I used a garden fork to penetrate as deeply as possible (without turning the soil over) allowing water and air to penetrate.

35 mls of rain and 48 hours later I commenced layering as much organic matter as I had easily available.

Layer 1: Nitrogen – A handful of gypsum clay breaker and some aged chicken manure. The manure provides soil microbes with some fast food to kick off the decomposition process.

Layer 2: Carbon – Sheets of cardboard and newspaper to smother weeds (or at least slow them down). Hint: The sheets of cardboard used to separate poultry feed bags on the pallets are a great size and usually easy to obtain from the feed store. Another hint: Leave the cardboard in the rain overnight so it is well soaked.

Layer 3: Nitrogen – A sprinkle of used coffee grounds.

Layer 4: Carbon – Old grass hay that has been rained on and has already started breaking down. Hint: grass hay contains seeds which will sprout so bury it as a bottom layer in the garden bed. Use straw as a top layer, as it doesn’t contain seeds.

Layer 5: Nitrogen – Mostly broken down compost that has been decomposing for a few months.

Layer 6: Carbon – Old leaves from under the pear trees which have been breaking down over winter.

Layer 7: A sprnkle of sugar cane mulch – not essential, but it keeps the moisture in, and makes it look tidier.

Leave everything to settle and decompose while your spring seeds are sprouting on the windowsill. By the time it is warm enough to plant tomatoes outside it will have broken down nicely, be full of worms, microbes and invertebrates, and best of all, carbon, and water and nutrition holding humus to feed your plants.

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