The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer builds his own fertilizer factory with compost

Texas farmer builds his own fertilizer factory with compost

Bee's friend blooms in early May.
Bee's friend blooms in early May. Its scent is as delicate as its flowers. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
A three-bay compost bin built from upcycled pallets.
Compost bin built from recycled pallets has three bays. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Weeds and other green vegetation steeped in water is reputed to make an effective liquid fertilizer.
Author Marshall Hinsley tops off a liquid compost barrel with weeds pulled from his garden plot.  Photo by Marshall Hinsley.
Bee's friend blooms in early May.
A three-bay compost bin built from upcycled pallets.
Weeds and other green vegetation steeped in water is reputed to make an effective liquid fertilizer.

Thunder crashed through the silence on the night of April 17. I was admiring my first planting of bee's friend in my garden. The plants were large and healthy; the stalks were topped with pregnant blooms about to burst open with dainty, lavender petals.

Storms were predicted for that night, so the thunder was not unexpected. But it sounded different. The boom was quick, and no rumbles followed. The doors of a metal building nearby rattled in a most unusual and violent way. My ears felt as if I had descended rapidly in an elevator. I suspected it might be some sort of blast and found out later that West, Texas had been nearly wiped off the map from a chemical explosion.

The fact that it was a fertilizer plant has fortified my commitment to opt out of industrialized agriculture. The death of ecosystems, the pollution of groundwater and depletion of soil, all associated with modern farming practices, can take years to manifest. But people suddenly being killed in the blast zone of a chemical explosion at a fertilizer factory should more urgently prod us to reconsider our modern food production system.

Composting 1-2-3
Near my garden plot, no more than a few hundred feet from where I live, is another fertilizer factory. Built last year, it will scale up to full operation this spring, when it will supply almost all of the nourishment for my crops. The raw materials for this fertilizer factory come from each year's discarded vegetation; at no time will explosive ammonium nitrate be added to increase the nitrogen value of the formula. When fully operational, it will provide both solid and liquid fertilizers and will be manned by countless insects and microorganisms.

It is my compost bin and liquid compost barrels.

I built a three-bay compost bin out of seven discarded pallets last year. I filled each bay with all the dead plants and weeds from my garden beds until the piles were so high, they’d accommodate no more. Even a few pizza boxes found their way into the pile. With a shovel of garden soil added for every wheelbarrow’s worth of vegetation, the bins had the right formula to turn tomato plants, watermelon rinds and battered Swiss chard leaves into a light brown heap of spongy compost. Gradually, the piles compacted, just in time to add more weeds and kitchen scraps.

At first, it seemed that the mixture would never evolve into compost. But one day, I was poking the heap to keep it from compacting too much, and I saw condensation stream out of the top of the mounds, like steam from an old locomotive. It was as if some garden fairy had traded my scraps for compost overnight.

The process of turning vegetation into rich garden nutrition is continuous. I mix up, or turn, the compost every week or two, and add water if it hasn't rained in a while. After six months of nurturing, the compost has reached the optimum degree of decay and can now be added to the garden soil. As a teenage grower, I worked with composted lawn clippings, and I can vouch for compost's ability to make plants thrive.

Tea time
The liquid compost barrels are a recent expansion of my personal fertilizer factory. I came across the idea while thumbing through an Australian gardening magazine at Half Price Books. I started by filling a rain barrel three-fourths full of weeds I'd pulled up from the garden beds. I added rainwater all the way to the rim, capped the barrel and let the contents steep. Soon a gut-wrenching odor developed.

The intent is to leach every molecule of nourishment out of the leaves, transforming the water into a brew of liquefied plant matter. You must wait until all the plant matter turns black and the odor dissipates. At that point, you strain it through a window screen to filter out remaining solids; the result should be a tea-like liquid.

So far, my first barrel has been steeping for a month. The odor is still enough to take my breath away when I open the lid, so it's not ready. But I've already started a second liquid compost barrel and will add a third. That way, I'll always have one from which I'm drawing the brew, one that's steeping and one I'm filling with weeds.

I understand that the perfect formulation for a foliar spray is one part brew to five parts rainwater, sprayed onto the leaves or added to the root zone every two weeks. The brew is reputed to outperform any chemical fertilizer on the market; I'm eager to see for myself if it's true. For growers with smaller plots, the same process can work with a five-gallon bucket.

These are just a couple of simple ways to manufacture one's own fertilizer. They're the kinds of methods farmers practiced for centuries before the industrialization of agriculture. They're effective on crops, harmless to wildlife and safe for the people who make them and apply them.

The people of West are still mourning for lost relatives and neighbors while trying to make sense of what happened. If we proceed as usual, those who lost their homes and their lives will be forgotten in a year – just an accident in the machinery of modern farming.

By the first week of May, the bee’s friend have bloomed in my garden. The fragrance is light and beautiful, just like the flowers. True to their name, they attract bees and other pollinators to the garden; it's a bucolic sight to see.