Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fermentation and transformation

At the beginning of November many people in the northern hemisphere observed a holiday marking a transitional point in the year, a time when those who have died are remembered and honored in various ways. Those of us who live in temperate parts of the hemisphere have death all around us at this time in the form of falling and fallen leaves, frosted-out gardens, and lawns going dormant. With these natural reminders of seasonal death around us, it makes sense that a Day of the Dead is celebrated at this time.

While I too remember those people I knew who have died, I also perform two other rituals to honor the plants that have died to feed me and the rest of nature. One ritual is to gather some of the newly fallen leaves to begin a new compost pile. To make good compost, one layers dry, high-carbon plant matter such as fallen leaves with wet, green plant matter such as garden weeds or kitchen wastes. If the proportion of the two is correct, when they are layered a fermentation process mediated by soil bacteria will eventually convert them into a mix of humus, a stable form of organic matter, and less stable forms of organic matter. Humus, and to a lesser extent the less-stable forms as well, attracts and loosely holds on to anionic (negatively charged) minerals such as the nitrates, sulfates, phosphates, and borates that plants need to grow. Plant roots are able to mine the humus for those minerals as they need them. By making compost and applying it in the right amount to my vegetable garden, I help the plants grow to their full potential while keeping the soil in good condition so that it may continue to support plant growth after I die.

By this time of year I have long since used all of the leaves I stockpiled from last year to make compost. If I were to use fossil-fueled means to gather and shred leaves I could stockpile enough leaves to last all year long, but because I use a human-powered leaf rake and have a limited number of hours to devote to raking leaves, sometime in summer I run out of stockpiled dry leaves. Thus, when enough leaves have fallen to make leaf-raking possible, it’s time to begin a new compost pile the proper way, with both high carbon and green materials. Since the garden isn’t making much in the way of weeds this late in fall, I mix the leaves with kitchen wastes that I’ve kept in two five gallon buckets. About a week ago I dumped the kitchen wastes onto a pile of mixed dry and green weeds and spent plants, dumped a layer of leaves on top, and then blessed the pile, honoring the ingredients and the microbes that will do the fermentation. I then put the remainder of the leaves I raked into one of the bins I use to stockpile them. By no means is this small start a full compost pile. The best compost piles I make are in spring, when I have lots of leaves from fall and green weeds from the gardens to layer together properly. But even so, this beginning of a new pile holds symbolic meaning for me. We all die in our time. I honor those who have died, acknowledge the fact that I will join them in my time, and know that out of that death the ferment of new life takes place.

Another way that I use fermentation to change past plants into future food is through collecting and analyzing data from my vegetable garden. Because our growing season ends at about this time, this yearly ritual also honors the dead plants that have fed me and transforms them into information that I can use to become a better gardener. I’m in that process now, having created a spreadsheet to compare the best results from previous years to this year’s results. As I type, I’m thinking about weather, pests, the differences in the way I planted in different years, and so on, looking for patterns that will help me to better understand the particularities of my situation and work with it in the best way. When nearly all of the data-gathering is completed (I’m still harvesting hardier crops like greens and root vegetables), I’ll post it and my analysis of the results. I wish more people would do something like this in different climates. It’s the kind of data I would have liked to have as a beginning gardener. But at least it might help those of you who live in climates similar to mine to become better gardeners quicker than I have, another form of transformation appropriate to the times.

Mike finished the wood shed today and began to load it with wood that came from the silver maple tree that was removed to make room for our garden shed. The photo shows the new wood shed with the wood he loaded into it. Because we’d kept a tarp over most of the piled logs for the last year or so, much of the wood is still suitable for burning despite its being three years since it was cut and piled.

Each of the two bays of the shed will hold a cord of wood. Since we haven’t used the wood stove much we don’t know if two cords would get us through a winter if we were heating only with wood. But we might start burning wood more often now that the shed is built, to begin to get a feel for how long a shed-full of wood, burned conservatively, would last.

The next post should be the next installment in my series on managing well in a minimally-heated house.


  1. Hi, Claire!

    Today I went outside to try your method of layering kitchen/green/slimy compostables with leaves.I got distracted and worked on my hugelculture bed instead, and then I got distracted some more and never did get to it. I am easily distracted. Tomorrow is another day! Living in the middle of a forest we have endless leaves. I'll trade you some leaves for some sun?

    On November 2 we have Remember Mr. Jackson Day. He was a dog, but the special day is a catalyst to remember those, with any number of legs, who have gone before.

    I don't think that I keep good enough records from each gardening season to put together the type of analysis that you are working on. I imagine that your discoveries will inspire me, as your other observations have.


    1. Hi Pam! I get distracted too sometimes, especially when I am doing housework. I might end up with four different tasks in various stages of completion and then scold myself for the mess. But it all gets done eventually.

      I live in a pretty good approximation of an urban forest, surrounded as we are by mature pin oak and silver maple leaves, so I have more leaves than I can rake up. And while I probably have more sun than you do, I haven't had as much as usual this year. But next year is another year.

  2. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for the thoughts and insight into your garden rituals. They are rituals aren't they?

    Remembering the dead is important too.

    Just out of interest, do you innoculate your compost pile with bacteria, fungi and soil life (eg. nematodes and worms etc.) from areas of your garden. It probably wouldn't take more than a handful or four thrown into the mix from well established and productive areas of your garden. I'm aware of someone that takes samples from all sorts of areas and adds it to their own garden to increase the overall soil life. There is something to be said about that.

    As it is warmer here, most fallen leaves have disappeared into the ground within two weeks of their leaf fall. I'd like to put a time lapse camera on that event one of these days...

    Well done and very top work with the wood storage area. You know, I've been finding that each year the requirements for fire wood changes so I have no idea how much I actually need - given it is the main heat source here during the winter too. Remember that this year was the coldest winter in 26 years too.



    1. Hi Chris! Soil from the vegetable garden ends up in the compost piles on a regular basis since it clings to plant roots. Some of the weeds I dig up from the rest of the yard find their way to the piles as well, again bringing in some soil. But I haven't yet been as deliberate about it as you suggest.

      Some of the thinner leaves, like those of silver maples, decompose pretty quickly, even in winter. Oak leaves, however, can take until the following summer to decompose. That isn't so good for a lawn, which I suppose is why people are forever blowing leaves from place to place with their leaf blowing machines. But it makes oak leaves good to use as mulch on my garlic and potato onion bed and also to mulch the hydrangeas and camellias once it gets cold.