Tag Archives: nitrogen

Friday Linkage 6/5/2015

The week just flies when you get a bike ride in for six straight days. I could get used to this life if the weather would just continue to be pleasant. Fat chance of that happening as the summer humidity is already starting to build here in Eastern Iowa.

On to the links…

Solon Farm Converts 25 Acres into Largest Hopyard in Iowa—I cannot wait to enjoy some of these local hops in a tall glass of Big Grover Brewery beer.

Research Downplaying Impending Global Warming is Overturned—If all this is looking a lot like what happened to tobacco companies in the 1990s it should because a lot of the same players are involved on the side of industry. They just shifted issues and are still getting paid to spread disinformation and lies.

The Beginning Of Wildfire Season Means More Bad News For Drought-Stricken West—No one knows how big or bad this wildfire season will be, but considering how dry California is right now there is the potential that it could be huge.

The Texas Floods Are So Big They Ended the State’s Drought—I doubt that the solution will be long lived, but it is amazing how much rain the storms in Texas brought to bear.

Disturbing Infographic Shows How Plastic is Clogging our Oceans—Hint, it’s a lot:


New Report Suggests U.S. Can Meet Its Climate Goals Without Congressional Action—We have the tools to address the worst aspects of climate change and it does not require a functioning legislative branch of government. Imagine that.

Regulators Give Green Light to Largest Minnesota Solar Energy Project—$250 million spread over 21 sites is a lot of solar in a state more associated with hot dish and passive aggressive behavior than harvesting the sun. Is Minnesota the United States’ Germany when it comes to solar PV?

Insane Solar Jobs Boom About To Get $32 Million More Insane—Here is when things start to snowball. As jobs become realized and the sector becomes attractive to investment the ancillary jobs in R&D, program management, etc. will start to flourish. There may be hope for us yet.

Coal Industry Received More Than $73 Billion In Last 8 Years—War on coal my ass. The world spends billions every year propping up this dirty fuel.

How Renewable Energy in South Africa is Quietly Stealing a March on Coal—Coal is dead. Developing countries are trying to get out from under the long term entrapment of coal fired power and renewables are the go to source because they are not dependent on the old paradigm.

Meat Giant Hormel To Gobble Up Slightly Smaller Meat Giant Applegate Farms—“Big organic” just got even bigger as the purveyor of everyone’s favorite canned meat product is buying the maker of those ubiquitous chicken sausages that come out during grilling season.

We’re Eating Less Meat—Yet Factory Farms Are Still Growing—It’s like the Lorax. These operations just keep on biggering and biggering. Everyone needs a thneed.

It’s Raining Nitrogen In A Colorado Park. Farmers Can Help Make It Stop—Between nitrates in the water and nitrogen in the air modern farming is a very dirty business. Unsurprisingly, modern management and practices can reduce the impact significantly.

Invasive Carp Caught Farther Upstream on St. Croix River—This is a big deal for the water ecosystems of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region because these invasive species decimate local populations of fish.

The Real Sharing Economy Doesn’t Require Apps, Just Kindness—The “sharing economy” is a buzzy term for something that people in closer knit communities have been practicing since the dawn of time. When you know your neighbors it’s a lot easier to ask someone to borrow a tool you might use once a year. Trust me, I own a pickup and I am everyone’s friend about once a year.

Clover is a Good Thing

“Are you going to do something about that clover?”

It was an offhand question from a neighbor which was asked while we watched our kids run around like mad people in the warm glow of an early autumn day when the temperature still allowed for shorts and sandals.

But, it forms the central line of thought about suburban lawns in most of the United States. Certain species of ornamental grass are good and everything else is an interloper. Even worse, there is a social pressure in some neighborhoods to maintain a certain type of grass in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Whatever.

In my opinion this is one of the most destructive impulses in modern America. In order to keep a thick carpet of Kentucky bluegrass we will pour water on our lawns when a drought is ongoing. We will coat our landscape in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maintain an artificial monoculture that can barely withstand the daily onslaught on children’s activities without looking threadbare. It is insane.

Which brings me back to the spreading patches of clover that I have nurtured in my lawn over the past couple of years. Dutch white clover is an amazing little plant that should not be wiped off the face of your landscape with an indiscriminate application of the latest miracle lawn chemical hawked by some guy in a Tyvek jumpsuit.

First, it fixes nitrogen in the soil. Like legumes and other “green manures” that people use in their vegetable gardens to put nitrogen back into the soil for healthy plants, clover can do this job for a lawn. So, instead of pouring bag after bag of synthetically derived fertilizer onto your lawn just let clover do the work of feeding your grass.

Second, it withstands close and repeated mowing. This means that it will survive and outcompete other non-grass plants that find it difficult to thrive when you keep lopping off the top portion of growth. It is amazing to see the kind of grass “mat” that is made when clover and turf intertwine. No crabgrass or lawn weeds seem able to penetrate the green fortress.

Third, in this era of climate change and weird weather clover will help the soil retain moisture, like a mulch, and it is relatively drought tolerant. If you are like me and you let your lawn go brown as the rainfall fails to appear, much to the chagrin of my sprinkler loving neighbors, patches of clover will maintain their green hue for a week or more after turf grasses start to go dormant.

About the only “downside” is that bees love the white flowers that rise from thick patches of clover. However, given the state of pollinators in the United States I think creating a little bit of bee friendly lawn is a good thing.

Sure, my lawn does not look like a golf course. But, who wants to maintain such an artificial environment steps away from their home on which their children play? Not this father.

Is it Green or Brown?

One of the great things about living in Iowa is sweet corn season.  A quickly grilled or boiled ear of sweet corn picked just hours earlier is one of those simple culinary treats that is hard to describe for the uninitiated.  I do not even want to try lest I venture into the arena of food porn.

One of the downsides of sweet corn season and, in particular, preparing sweet corn is that fourteen ears produces a load of kitchen scraps:


It’s hard to get an idea, but that is a large mixing bowl overflowing with husks and silk.  The easy answer is to compost the husks and that’s what I do.

The problem with corn husks is that the volume of material may upset the ideal balance in your compost bin.  Ideally, you want to have an even balance of “green” or nitrogen rich material and “brown” or carbon rich material.  The colors of the material being composted are not necessarily representative of their carbon or nitrogen content.  It’s just sort of gardener shorthand.

Corn husks are a “green.”  Therefore, the husks are heaping piles of nitrogen waiting to be put onto your compost pile.  My compost bin tends to be heavy on the nitrogen because the primary source of material is kitchen scraps—coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, etc.

You will need to balance out the ratio of nitrogen to carbon.  Luckily, you might already have the answer when you finish eating the corn because the cob is a “brown.”  Throw those onto the compost pile as well.  Some people swear by breaking them into smaller pieces and this will aid in decomposition, but I am a lazy composter and just throw the whole cobs onto the pile.  Horror stories of eternal cobs lasting for years in active piles seem to be the stuff of garden legend.  After about a year the cobs that remain are fairly well broken down.

Good Use for Old Newspaper

If you workplace is anything like mine then people are still attached to getting their daily news on dead trees.  Every morning stacks of newspapers are dropped off for distribution.  I do not know what the business model of the Wall Street Journal is but those guys drop off at least one extra stack of newspapers every day.  How do I know?  Because the stack is moved beside the large recycling bins without ever getting cut from its binding.

What a waste!  Now, you could argue that even printing the Wall Street Journal was a waste considering it is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and I will stand you that opinion.  I thought there had to be a better use for these dead trees besides straight up recycling.

Enter the compost pile.  A lot of people who compost will have no trouble ensuring the right mix of carbon and nitrogen in their pile—the sacred mix of brown and green that you hear compost cognoscenti speak about—but I lack some of the best sources of carbon rich material, namely fallen leaves.  Living in a house that is less than five years old means that my trees are also less than five years old and do not drop a lot of leaf litter.

Newspaper is carbon rich, but you do not want to just throw sheets of the latest business gossip into you pile because the material will become a matted and soggy mess.  I use the paper shredder that we have in the home office to turn sheet after sheet of newspaper into perfect little crosscut confetti that is perfect for mixing into the pile:

Compost Newspaper Shredded

You have to be careful to really mix the newspaper in because I can form balls of mushy pulp even in a finely shredded form.  The stuff will break down eventually, but the process will be slowed considerably.  This is true, however, for just about anything in your compost pile.  The larger the pieces, the longer the wait for rot.

By the way, those are torn up pieces of pizza boxes mixed in with the paper.  The greasy cardboard is not acceptable for our curbside recycling, so I separate the panels that are not greasy–usually the top of the box–and tear up the rest for composting.  Although most compost guides tell you not to compost oils and dairy I have never had a problem with rodents or other animals getting into my bin for those tasty morsels.

I have two compost bins set up in my yard.  My plan is to fill one up and have it “percolate” for a period of time so that I can have a bin full of rich compost for revitalizing my yard’s soil come spring.  The picture above is from the bin that I am going to let sit all summer and rot.  The alternating bin will be the active dump for the year.  Come spring 2014 my hope is that I can sift the compost from the one bin and use it as the active dump while the previous season’s active dump “percolates.”

One of the amazing things about the compost pile is how much the freeze/thaw cycle breaks down the material.  Before the winter, this bin was probably two-thirds or more filled with primarily kitchen waste.  It was less than half full when I mixed in a bucket of shredded newspaper.  Nature is amazing.

The Power of Pee

Are we entering an age where our supplies of certain commodities have reached their utmost production and are bound to decline inexorably?  I could easily be talking about peak oil, the concept of which has been much discussed for the past forty years or so.  Instead, I am talking about the potential for the era of peak fertilizer.

Peak fertilizer?  Really?  Not really peak fertilizer, per se, but peak potassium and peak phosphorous which are two thirds of fertilizer’s chemical building blocks alongside nitrogen.  The always excellent Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones has done an excellent job explaining the issue in an article from November of last year.

The basic issue is that potassium and phosphorous cannot be synthesized like nitrogen, which can literally be made out of thin air in a nearly hundred year old process.  The other two elements must be found in the earth and large deposits are scattered in very few sites.  Some of these sites are in regions where ownership is hotly contested or the locals are not very friendly to western nations.  In essence, we are reaching a point where our ability to make fertilizer, the backbone of modern industrial agriculture, is threatened by many of the same geopolitical forces that impact oil.  Yet no one is really talking about this in a serious way because we do not fill up our SUVs with phosphates.

However, the problem of peak fertilizer does have a solution.  It requires the recycling of nutrients in the soil and the building up of the organic matter in soil.  These are the central tenants of biodynamic or sustainable or organic agriculture.  So, industrial agriculture’s future is not so certain because the inputs that make it possible are threatened by scarcity themselves.

Closer to home there is a free and easy solution…your urine.  Generally, urine is composes of approximately 95% water, 2% urea, and the remainder is trace elements like minerals, salts, hormones, etc.  Check out the chemical composition:


Do you see that urine already contains potassium and phosphate?  Where is the nitrogen?  Urea is the source of nitrogen.  So, your pee already has the chemical components to be an excellent fertilizer.  It also happens to be sterile when fresh.  After about a day the urea will turn into ammonia and give off that awesome smell you remember from shady bars in college.  Nothing like the smell of stale beer and urine in the evening!

If you’re like me, that is to say living in a suburban neighborhood, your neighbors would probably frown on you just dropping your trousers and taking a leak on the lilacs.  Plus, to make sure you do not “burn” the plants with too much nitrogen it is a good idea to dilute your urine with water.  Some sites suggest a 10 to 1 water to urine ratio, but I have never been that scientific.  I just pee into a watering can—the benefit of being male is apparent here—and dilute with water in the morning or afternoon every day before pouring it on one of my plants.  Sometimes I just pour it out onto the grass.  It really is that simple.  If you live in a more arid climate than me there might concerns about salts from your urine accumulating in the soil.  Eastern Iowa gets enough rain where the soil is cleansed of salts.

As an aside, I avoid pouring this DIY liquid fertilizer on any plants where I might be eating the fruit just to be safe.  It seems like a simple precaution to take.

If your urine gets old and smells like window cleaner, just pour it on the compost pile and let nature break that stuff down into the wonderful black gold.

A further benefit to using your urine in this way is that you are saving water in addition to recycling nutrients.  I used to be obsessed with dual-flush toilets because I thought it was so wasteful to use over 1.5 gallons of clean water to whisk away some pee.  Guess what?  I do not use any water—1.5 gallons or otherwise—now because I pee in a watering can.  Now, it’s just the solid waste that goes down with the fresh water.  I have not broached the idea of humanure with my wife quite yet.  Next year…

A group based in Colorado, the dZi Foundation, is working with villages in Nepal to utilize human urine in agriculture.  The system is not much more complex than what I have described.  Instead of using watering cans, urine is collected centrally, diluted, and applied using drip irrigation directly onto the soil rather than broadcast to avoid contact with food.

As the world tries to figure out what to do when industrial methods of production begin to fail, we can look closer to home for solutions to solve problems.  It’s amazing!

What Can I Put in the Compost Bin?

The weather is starting to warm up—finally!—and that means my thoughts are turning every more so toward the outdoors.  All winter long, I dutifully trudge out to the side yard and dump used coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, paper towels, etc. into the compost bin.

Come spring I will spend time turning the contents of the bin and incorporating some additional “brown” or carbon rich material—usually shredded newspaper—to maintain the proper balance between carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials.  However, spring is also the first time I really look at what is in my bin and wonder if I am putting in the right stuff.

I do not get too worked up about oils and fats being included in my bins because I never have anything like a stick of butter or a bottle of olive oil to compost.  It’s usually some oil on a towel or something like that.

Other people will tell you not to include bread or other baked goods.  Again, it’s not like I am disposing of a loaf of bread or a dozen donuts in the compost bin.  However, I know that hard crusts my daughter does not eat or the last few bites of a cookie have found their way into the steaming pile.

Heck, there are people I know who compost the entrails from slaughtering chickens on their small farmsteads with absolutely no problems.  Granted, the remains are not thrown on giant open piles but it shows how far you can take the premise of composting.  If you were so inclined you could even go the whole humanure route.  I am not there yet.

Regardless of what you compost or what rules you are following the important fact is that you are composting.  Compost happens, man.