038 The Ground Rules with Nance Klehm


On this week’s episode of the Root Simple podcast we talk with Nance Klehm about The Ground Rules. Nance’s project gathers waste from restaurants and institutions in Chicago, composts that waste and then uses the resulting compost along with mushrooms and plants to bioremediate damaged urban soils. Nance describes The Ground Rules as “re-imagining waste and biological infrastructures.” You can find out more about the project on the Social Ecologies website and on Nance’s personal website. There’s also a video about The Ground Rules. If you’re in Chicago you can visit Nance and Emmanual Pratt’s exhibition, For the Common Good: Meet the Remediators.

Nance’s explanation of The Ground Rules is really inspiring. She’s developing a manual to help people develop similar programs and will be coming out with a book about soil in the fall.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Abandonded Christmas trees: the sad sights of January


The last of the Christmas trees are appearing on sidewalks and curbs. When I look at these, all I see is organic matter crying out to return to the earth. These trees don’t want to go to the landfill, they want to stay in the flow, to become nutrients and habitat. The way I see it, we owe them decent treatment in return for the joy they gave us over the holidays.

It’s not that hard to strip the branches off a tree, and throw those branches and needles beneath another tree as mulch. The trunk can be made into firewood–or hugelkultur!

(Of course you don’t want to mulch with trees sprayed with fire retardant or anything other fishy business)

Compost Piles on Fire!

Image: Wikimedia.

Image: Wikimedia.

Call it a weird, unintended consequence of our ongoing drug war, but apparently indoor compost piles are igniting house fires all across the U.S. Pot growers stack up their leftover biomass and, soon after, the whole house goes up in a puff of smoke, so to speak.

It got me wondering about two things. What’s the biology of a compost pile fire? And do non-pot growing folks in cold climates commonly have indoor compost piles?

First the biology. BioCycle has a whole article on fire prevention in municipal composting facilities that covers this common problem.

So what situation(s) can lead to a fire? Here’s what can happen with a low moisture, large pile with little air exchange, combined with water getting into the pile in a place where there is enough air to support biological activity and chemical oxidation, but not enough to cool the pile.

An old, dry compost pile, or a pile of overs screened out of the finished product, is a case in point. Water seeping into the dry compost can restart microbial activity and initiate reheating. A “macropore” or crack from the hot spot to the surface often develops into a vent, or chimney. Air movement up through this vent draws more oxygen into the hot spot where heat is being generated, rapidly escalating the transition from a biological fire to smoke and glowing embers. Appearance of this hot, humid air at the surface can be an important indicator that heating is taking place inside the pile.

Compost pile fires are unlikely for most home scale gardeners. One preventative technique recommended in the Biocycle article is to keep piles smaller than 12 feet high. Not a problem for most backyard gardeners.

Now a question for our readers around the world: who, other than pot growers, have indoor compost piles?

015 Worm Composting and Skunks

Our worm bin.

Our worm bin.

On the fifteenth episode of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss how our cleaning project is going, worm composting, the ongoing skunk menace in our garden and we review two books. Apologies for some clipping in the audio and the cat interruptions.

During the worm composting segment we cover:


What are we reading

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.

Bread: A Global History By William Rubel.

Kelly mentions Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Worm Compost Leachate, Good or Bad?

Image: Permaculturewiki.

Image: PermaWiki.

In the course of preparing for our worm composting demo last week Kelly and I came across a lot of conflicting information. One of the most contentious issues in worm composting is what to do with the liquid that comes off the worm bin, called leachate.

The controversy stems, in large part, from the debate over aerated compost tea (ACT) vs. non-aerated compost tea. Fans of ACT do not like the fact that worm bin leachate is anaerobic, which they believe encourages the growth of microorganisms unfavorable to plants. They like to point out that worm bin leachate is not ACT.

The ACT debate needs a much longer post, but I did find two peer reviewed studies showing the benefits of un-aerated worm compost leachate: “Vermicomposting Leachate (Worm Tea) as Liquid Fertilizer for Maize and “Vermicompost Leachate Alleviates Deficiency of Phosphorus and Potassium in Tomato Seedlings.” I also found several Extension Service publications touting the use of worm bin leachate.

There are some caveats, however. First, it needs to be diluted–at least 1:1 and maybe, according to some sources, as much as 1:10. And you should probably test it out on a few plants before applying it to your whole garden.

And, from a food safety perspective, I’d avoid applying it to leafy greens and lettuces. I’d also point out that if you have a lot of leachate it might mean that your worm bin has too much moisture in it.

What do you think? Have you used worm bin leachate successfully? What side of the aerated vs. non-aerated debate are you on?