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29 March, 2010

Oh My Biomass

On some Sundays, before the righteous are even dressing for church, I'm out in creation laboring away: pruning, weeding, digging, planting.

For some reason, there's always something left over. Twigs and branches and boles. Dandelion roots and blackberry canes. Sods of clover, grass, and weeds.

Residential neighborhoods tend to evict that stuff. Maybe just toss it into the municipal woods to fend for itself, but more likely put it in a greenwaste bin, a couple of mechanized dumps and a short drive from municipal compost heap. Or if you don't want monthly bills for that service, you can haul and pay it yourself when the mood strikes.

The mood strikes me just about never.

Big enough branches and the tree I took down last year provide home and cooking heat. Sticks that suit become bean and hop poles (if I cn get them before they become tipi poles for the kids). Whippy withes become all sorts of things, as befits their flexibility. Wee twigs and leaves subside into soil eventually.

Then there's the less benign stuff, weeds exotic and aggressive. Not that I'm a persistent eradicator, but when I dig a new bed or eliminate less tasty competition from garden ground, I don't let the biomass escape. Because grass clods re-root so readily here in the misty northwest, I pile them in a couple of places, tamping them down into new topographic features: a terrace in the front, a low escarpment in back where blueberries will one day be that much closer to the sun. In the darkest backest part of the back yard, a few pick-up loads of mixed windfall wood, weeds, sods, stray gravel, and bark have developed into a woodland plateau.

Just as the various sizes of alder wood have their specific uses, so do other vegetative resources. Conifer bark weed control, cedar leaf acid mulch for berries, alder leaf blanket mulch for dahlias, alder and hazelnut catkin soil amendment, and on and on. Every leftover is a feast, seen from the right angle.

Meanwhile, a box of redworms quietly eat their way through all the vegetable trimmings and leftovers, pooping out fertilizer. I just added a second box. After cookouts (using the downed alder, as if you needed to ask), I cut off the oxygen flow, and the next day stir ashes and charcoal into the soil. Besides the fertilizing benefit for this year's garden, the fire leavings will be good substrate for morel mushrooms. As an archaeologist, I've often seen another benefit of this: buried charcoal is durable and persistent in the soil; it is low-tech carbon sequestration. (And yeah, I know, a bunch of CO2 smoked up off the grill, but I had to eat.)

So, no green-waste can here. A partial can of recyclables every other week. A 25 gallon trash can on the other every other week. One trip to the dump in a year. That's about it. The rest is destined to return to the earth right here.

Until I have a lot more time, I'll be a net importer of biomass. I don't grow hardly any food, to be honest, so almost all of those veggie scraps came from some other piece of earth. In the past couple of years, I've also brought in somewhere between one and two pickup loads of compost, mulch, and peat moss to amend the sandy soil here, and to help along new trees and such. That rate should slow down this year, and I am hoping that as I keep cycling the yard's biomass back into soil, and start producing more fruit and vegetables here at home, the trade imbalance will even out some.

The funny thing is that this is all pretty radical to most people, even in crunchy green Olympia. I have a neighbor who always offers me any spare space in her greenwaste bin, but actually I think she's the only one who notices hat a biomass hoarder I am, and that's just because she knows I use it all, not so much because she can point to some pile of weeds or moldering wood.

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