Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Our Definitions: Strategic Composting

It's hard to believe, but we're finally turning the corner on winter, heading into March and looking forward to feeling the sun warm our faces, then our bare forearms, then our bare feet, and then one wonderful day, we'll be wearing bathing suits and plunging into our first lake-swim of the summer.

But we get ahead of ourselves. There's still time for winter ruminations and we're making the most of it at HNH by updating our staff manual. Last year we had a seasonal staff of 15; with that many people on board, a clear operational manual is crucial-- Rosmarie can't be looking over the shoulders of all of us at once! Part of my role as the HNH writer is to communicate the key concepts that underpin the philosophy and practices that Rosmarie has developed and refined over the last 12 years. Since I'm preoccupied with these concepts lately, I thought I might share one here.

'Strategic composting' is a great example of what can occur when you are committed to a sustainable thought process. The best way to describe how it works is to walk you through an example. On a particular property, HNH had been contracted to thin out a section of dense woods. The owners wanted to open up a section of woodland space for their young grandchildren, so that the kids could play in the woods but still be visible from the back window. In the process of thinning out this space, we knew that we would haul out three or four large truckloads of woody biomass.

Woods before

Woods after

This creates two issues for a sustainable mindset. The first is the non-renewable energy consumed by trucking the biomass. The second issue is the removal of nutrients and minerals from the immediate system. So, instead of moving this biomass, Rosmarie looked around the property to see if it could be used strategically, to feed another part of the landscape as it decomposed. She noticed this hillside with its poor soil and exposure to wind.

So, in consultation with the clients, a decision was made to build up this hill with biomass taken from the forested area. Placed strategically, the biomass could protect the existing soil of the hill, slow the flow of water running down the slope, trap seeds and debris from surrounding trees, and as it decomposed, it could contribute nutrients and minerals to new plantings, as well as habitat and nourishment for wildlife. In time, without substantial inputs from outside the clients’ property, this hillside could be transitioned from a patchy, eroding slope, to a stable growing space.

Weaving branches to form a tight mat

Instead of simply dumping the biomass, Rosmarie showed us how to layer the cuttings, weaving them tightly together to trap moisture and prevent air flow. Preventing air flow is essential: a mat that is dense and therefore moist is not a fire hazard. We also molded the mat so that we softened the grade of the steep slope. We topped the mat with the seaweed and in the fall, when we returned to winterize newly planted shrubs, we stuffed hay into open spaces. The hay adds to the composting biomass and contributes a diversity of local seeds. Next spring, we’ll help to accelerate decomposition by clipping the mat into smaller pieces.

In progress...
Finished for now

For me, this project weaves together many of the key questions of sustainable landscaping: what is an ecosystem approach? How can we think 5-10 years into the future? How can creative design make solutions out of problems? While sustainable landscaping can seem as though it limits your options, in reality it simply requires you to pay attention and be creative.

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