“The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer, Walker Rowe, sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
1 October 2014.
I built a compost pile for my garden. Compost and humus are the same thing: it means organic material that has been broken down by bacteria until there is no more nitrogen. It is pure carbon. The guy at the garden shop where I bought topsoil told me that here in Chile not many people make compost piles too much. One obvious reason for that is you need to keep the pile damp in order for bacteria to grow. It´s hard to keep anything damp here in dusty Chile, except without expending a great deal of water, and water is precious.
When I had my farm in Virginia, I made compost in a big way. I got local wineries to dump grape skins left over after pressing into a big pile on my farm. Then I bought two truckloads of sawdust from a mill where they makes oak wine barrels. To make compost you need a mix of carbon (sawdust) and nitrogen (grape skins), heat, oxygen, and water.
Soil scientists say compost is good for the soil. It is rich in minerals, it helps soil retain water, and it ameliorates problems with PH imbalance, meaning soil that is too acidic or basic. I am not sure what the PH in the soil is here, as I have not yet sent a sample for testing. But I know it would be on the alkaline side of 7.0, which is neutral. Water has PH of 7.0. PH > 7 is alkaline and PH < 7 is basic. If your soil is basic, like on the East Coast of the USA and in Bordeaux, you add limestone and in 6 months to a year hydrogen ions blow off bringing the PH closer to 7.0. In California, Chile, and in Champagne, the soil is alkaline. To correct that you add calcium or sulfur to lower the PH. When the PH varies too far from 7.0, certain plants cannot grow well, because they cannot take up nutrients. You might have read that blueberries and azaleas like soil that is acidic. It is probably more correct to say that they tolerate soil that is acidic, as all plants would do best in soil that has PH from 5.5 to 6.5.
Water retention is an important benefit of compost here in central Chile. In heavy clay soils, soil holds water. But in the loamy and sandy soils of Chile, the soil leaches water, meaning its water holding capacity is low. That means the plants are most likely to suffer drought in dry conditions.
There are two ways to make compost: with air (aerobic) or without (anaerobic) air. Someone’s backyard home compost project uses aerobic composting. You keep the pile damp and then turn the pile every few weeks to let in oxygen. At Mimba Compost in Las Condes, they sell rotating barrels with a handle so that you can turn the compost pile easily, thus introducing air into areas that are damp and rotting. That is a lot easier that using a pitchfork or shovel to turn over something that is quite heavy. You can make compost this way in about one month and save your back. But I do things here in the country at least cost, so am not going to buy anything from Mimba Compost.
I decided to make compost underground. The anaerobic approach takes 6 months to a year. Since there is less heat underground, composting proceeds at a different rate, because different kinds of yeast and bacteria live in those conditions. I had no other choice as an above ground pile would dry out too fast in all this sun and I have no shade. So I dug two huge holes, lined them with plastic, and filled them with weeds and flowers that I pulled from the yard and shredded newspaper. The newspaper was for carbon and everything else, including kitchen waste, was for nitrogen.
The compost pile I made in Virginia was, for people who are thrilled by such things, marvelous to see. In order to know that your composting process is working, meaning it is breaking down the organic material, you stick your hand inside and make sure it is hot. As bacteria eat the organic material, this releases energy in the form of heat. When I turned over this enormous pile with my tractor, clouds of vapor would escape, letting me know it was working. When the pile has gone cold, the compost is ready. I spread it on a field with a manure spreader.
In Chile, I will wait 6 months and dig it up to see how it is progressing.
Oscar’s dog started digging in the pile on the first day. I fixed that by spreading black pepper in the soil giving that annoying, untrained pest an incentive to dig elsewhere.
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