Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How to Compost...and galettes de sarrasin

Our Rose of Sharon bushes are starting to flower, lending an exuberant, tropical accent to the garden.

I love how the vivid, carmine centre weeps into the white petals

When harvesting, sometimes I am surprised by Dayo, who loves to sleep among the veggies.  He also dozes in Madame Ms glorious, eight-feet-high sunflower 'forest'.  He is sometimes subjected to non-voluntary showering by our careless use of watering cans and hoses.

Dayo snoozing in the three-feet-high tater bed

Sometimes summer harvesting is serendipitous--a meal that I have been planning appears in the garden, like the ingredients for cold cucumber soup. Other times, it is just potluck, and I got to wrack my brains to devise something tasty from what can be harvested and what's in the larder and fridge.  Recently potatoes, basil, carrots, beets, green beans, and onions from the potager along with eggs and  Galettes de Sarrasin from the fridge/freezer posed such a challenge. 

Galettes de sarrasin are savoury buckwheat crêpes, a speciality from the Bretagne region.  They are very thin and crisp, requiring some skill in making them well so I rely on my trusty neighbourhood Picard to supply me with a decent enough frozen version.  They are usually stuffed with some mix of ham/cheese/egg and veggies like mushrooms.  My version is a complete meal like the traditional stuffed one and surprisingly tasty despite the departure from the norm.

That's a folded Galette de Sarrasin on the lower left

Most of the veggies could not be easily stir fried, so into a pot of boiling water they go--first the whole small potatoes and carrots until almost tender, then the green beans for several minutes longer, with the beet being cooked separately.  Leave about an inch of stalk on top of the beet to prevent bleeding and loss of flavour, peeling the beet after it is tender as the skin will slip right off under running cold water. Then the lovelies get  sautéed in some olive oil, starting with sliced onions/peeled potatoes, letting them colour a bit.  Toss in chopped basil, sliced beets/carrots, and green bean pieces and cook a minute or so more, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

The beets impart a rosy glow to the medley

I butter a heavy skillet and place the crepe. 

Then I put the veggies in the middle, formed into a triangular shape.

I make a little shallow depression in the centre and slide an egg into it, tucking the three sides up and over most of the filling, showcasing the egg yolk.

The skillet is covered and remains on low heat until the sunny side up egg is cooked to preference.

Voila!  It looks like tricorn hat.

A recipe for making galettes can be found here.  The traditional way is a four-sided fold, but I swear I encountered this tricorn version in St. Malo!  

A gardener grows her soil, not just plants.  I enjoy collecting vegetable matter for composting, because I take an active part in the fertility cycle of my garden.  I use recycled, lidded,  plastic gallon containers for collecting veggie trimmings and peelings.  Dead-heading of flowers is such a joy because it generates a lot of good stuff for the compost piles.

There are three main ways of composting: sheet, trench, and pile.  Sheet composting comprises covering up the growing weeds where they are, usually with a slow decomposing cover like heavy cardboard or several layers of newspaper.  Though plastic or heavy synthetic carpets can be used in a pinch, they may adversely affect the balance of microorganisms in the soil. Lasagna gardening involves this approach using only organic materials--if done in the fall, by spring the area will be ready for planting.  For areas with very entrenched weeds like nettles, some digging and/or mowing down weeds may be required before sheet composting.  The trench method involves laying down of kitchen scraps in a dug trench and covering them with soil. Planting then is done next season on top of the decayed materials which are close to the growing roots thus making this a great way to grow root veggies.  The directions below are for a fast-decomposing pile which takes about two months and usually destroys weed seeds, which of all the methods, can be the most labour intensive.


1)  Collect materials, a minimum for a small pile is about three feet high and three feet square.  Dog and cat feces and animal flesh/fats are not eligible, otherwise just anything else organic can be composted.  If you have any doubts, check the web for more information.  I put nut shells and large pits on my slow compost heap.  A combination of fast (usually green-coloured like grass) and slow-to-decompose (usually brown-coloured like leaves) materials will keep the piles smelling fresh. In addition, comfrey is a great boost for the health of compost piles.

Ever since I identified that patch of large-leaved, blue-flowering shrubby patch at the back of the garden as comfrey, I am amazed how fresh and sweet smelling their leaves keep my piles which are often shock-a-block with fast composting stuff like windfalls of fruit.

Usually one application of comfrey is enough for a pile

If your pile is composed of slow-to-decompose stuff like leaves and cardboard, then some nitrogen fertiliser can be added to the pile.  If your pile goes too fast and gets smelly, then add a bit of crumpled-up paper towels or cardboard.  I use the scraps of cardboard left from my sheet composting.  Use your nose as a guide to the health of the pile and adjust according. 

2)  Place your materials in a place where it is easy to work the pile--away from tree roots which could grow up into the pile, making turning difficult--any dripping roof gutters, and in a sunny location to speed up decomposition.  My pile is free standing, but bins can be bought or built to house the piles.

3)  Chop materials up with a spade, secateurs, or a woodchipper.   When deadheading, weeding, pruning, I will cut the stuff into smaller pieces with secateurs and put them right away into my nearby compost bucket.  For leaves, I just chop them first one direction with the spade, and then in the other direction.  But I do envision a chipper in my future fairly soon.

4)  Turn the pile with a pitchfork.  The more frequently turned, the faster it will decompose. The organisms that do the heavy decomposition are aerobic, requiring a steady diet of oxygen.

A common gardening joke is that the biggest crop is what randomly takes root in the compost area.

Ringing the pile are tomato plant volunteers

5)  Keep piles moist, not sopping wet though.  If your climate is very wet, then protection from excessive moisture may be required via a tarp.  When touching the pile, it should feel very warm to the touch; if not, then more watering/turning/material are probably required.  Once it cools down, the aerobic bacteria will have done the most they can and the worms will take over, for a week or two of curing during which no new materials should be added.  You can start a new pile--I usually have two or three piles in various stages of decomposition. When the worms are mostly gone and the majority of the material has been transformed into rich, fresh-smelling compost, it is ready for the next step.

6)  Sieve it--I shake the sieve and push stuff through via my gloved hands--and put the non-decomposed bits back in the composting area.  Luckily I inherited a sieve when moving here.

But there are easy instructions on the net to make one.  If your climate is really hot, it may not be necessary to sieve.  Partially decomposed material is OK for topping up beds, but not for forking into the soil, because the further decomposition will require nitrogen which can be robbed from the soil, thereby depriving plants.

I do love the smell of fresh compost in the morning, but I suspect my garden loves it more

I usually make about six fast piles yearly.  If you do nothing, no watering, no turning, it will takes about two years on its own.  I have two composting areas, one for slow decomposition--usually comprised of large weeds with earth attached to their root balls--and another for fast composting. I use the sheet composting method also and will start the trench method in the fall for next season's root veggies.  As our winters are so short, I find that dumping materials on top of a cold/frozen pile poses no problem, but if your winters are long and cold, you may want to insert a wide hollow PVC pipe into the centre of the pile before it freezes so you can continue to add to it.

Sieved compost can then be dug into new and annual beds and placed on the top of already established beds as a mulch that will eventually become part of the soil.  I tend not to use the cold pile for incorporating into the soil as weed seeds are mostly likely plentiful--though if small quantities are cooked in a solar oven it will be weed-seed free--and reserve it for just topping up for already planted areas.  Weeds growing from the top are easier to pull.