Money for trash and the perks aren’t free

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Change, Compost, Consumption, Environment, Local Government, Oklahoma City, Recycling, Tricia Dameron, Waste Management | Posted on 25-08-2009


by Tricia Dameron

City living definitely has its perks. One perk I’m enjoying since we moved to inner-OKC a mere three weeks ago has been curbside recycling. What a treat! Previously we lived in an unincorporated area and had to haul our recycling to a drop-off center during Saturday morning errands. Everything had to be sorted and it was common for the dumpsters to be overflowing with recyclables, resulting in us carting our waste back to the house.

Today is trash day in my new neighborhood and as I made my way to the office, I pondered the missing “Little Blues” at many of my neighbors’ curbs. I cannot comprehend why someone would opt out of curbside recycling. Because of my various residences, taking recycling to drop-off centers has always been a highly regarded pain in the butt. Comparatively, curbside recycling is a luxury. As of July 2009 26 percent of OKC trash customers set out their “Little Blue” every week and 52 percent of the same participate in curbside recycling, according to Mark Jordan at Recycle America. Perhaps you’re asking yourself, “What is the difference between set-out rate and participation rate?” I’m not clear on that yet, but check back for more information in the comments.

I wish Oklahoma City had a residential pay-as-you-throw program. I recycle and compost without financial incentive, but it would nice (and logical) to pay less when I use less (landfill space), as it is with gas, electricity, and city water. For $16.23/month, you can fill two 90-gallon “Big Blue” containers per week. A third 90-gallon cart costs an additional $2.76/month. I can request a smaller cart, but I’ll pay the same if I dispose 7 gallons or 180 gallons of waste per week. I wonder if there has been any correlation between pay-as-you-throw programs and multiplying illegal dump sites?

Recycling can also be incentivized by container deposit legislation (also called a “bottle bill”), which requires a refundable deposit on beverage containers. Seven states with bottle bills studied litter rates and found a substantial reduction in beverage container litter. Oklahoma Department of Transportation spends $3.5 million/year cleaning up litter along state highways. A 1998 litter survey found beverage containers to be the fourth highest source of litter in Oklahoma.

Iowa, with land area and population comparable to Oklahoma, enacted a bottle bill in 1978. If Iowa can do it, why can’t Oklahoma? Several attempts to enact a bottle bill have failed in the Oklahoma Legislature. In 2008 a measure creating a task force to simply study container deposit legislation didn’t even get a committee hearing.

Spending taxes to pick up litter will never cure the problem. And burying reusable materials — materials that save money, energy and natural resources — comes straight from pages of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” by Jared Diamond. Both practices seem antithetical to the fiscally conservative values of the political majority here in Oklahoma.

Here a chick, there a chick

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Chickens, Compost, Home and Garden, Homesteading, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell, Urban Gardening | Posted on 20-08-2009


by Ron Ferrell

As a farm kid, I was always fascinated with birds. Wild birds as well as domesticated birds stirred my curiosities with their beauty and amazing range of feather colors. I had geese, ducks, a variety of chickens, pea foul and pigeons, but my favorites were the peacocks, followed by chickens. Geese, pigeons and ducks were so nasty, but chickens had a terrific pay off — eggs. Peacocks ate lots of bugs and they were just beautiful.


As a middle-aged urban homesteader I’ve eschewed raising chickens but my neighbor Matt’s garden convinced me to reconsider my self-imposed “no chicken” rule. I call birds in a pen “predator bait,” so as a work-around Matt loaned me one of his electric chicken fences, and after much additional prodding from Matt, I decided to get a small flock of chickens for eggs, composting organic matter and soil building. My new flock of 26 Welsummer chickens, a heritage breed, have been on my property for a week now and they are maturing so quickly.

When I first released them into the electrified poultry pen, they obviously had not been out of a brooder house environment as they were not used to grass and all that open space. They just stood in a tight flock for a couple of hours before they started to venture out away from the fence corner. The chicken feed and water helped lure them away. 

I have been dumping various veggie matter over the fence, some of which the chickens eat, but the bugs drawn to the veggie pile seem to attract their attention the most. Yesterday I dumped the spent grains I collect from COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City into the pen, and slowly the chicks began picking through the grains. This morning however, they were very actively eating the spent grains. Chickens are the ultimate composting machine!

The spent grains are high in protein with small amounts of nucleic acid as well as many trace minerals. In addition to the spent grains, I will be feeding my flock lots of vegetable matter from my kitchen and local restaurant sources. Apart from the effort of getting the spent grains and the vegetable materials to my property, they are free food sources for my chickens.

If you have any interest in keeping a chicken or two, check out chicken tractors. YouTube has several examples of chicken tractors, along with construction techniques, use and feasibility of use for city dwellers.

One of the most wonderful aspects of my chickens is they are so darned cute, playful and endlessly curious. I’ve placed lawn chairs and a cocktail table beside the chicken pen and in the cool of the evening I just sit, meditate and watch my beautiful Welsummers as they grow from chicks into beautiful chickens.

Terra Preta

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Books, Compost, Ron Ferrell, Science, Soil Management | Posted on 02-03-2009


by Ron Ferrell

Just how clever were those South American Indians? They were one of the first races on the planet to include the number 0 in their mathematical and monetary system, but now their population cannot be found in any resemblance to what the anthropologists say once flourished. It was thought that they overused their food infrastructure, but most likely the few who were left after war and disease brought by the Spanish invaders decimated their numbers were absorbed into other tribes in the area.

After years of archaeological research an unlikely native asset revealed itself. The research revealed a vast area of black soil that the natives had apparently created and used to maintain enormous cultures with fruit and food–an oasis in the jungles. Research indicates the key ingredient that fueled this composting marvel was charcoal. It appears that making charcoal was an intentional industry to help create the black Terra Preta.

Dr. Michael P. Byron states, in his book The Path Through Infinity’s Rainbow:

Terra preta soil is formed by incorporating biochar–locally produced charcoal–into ordinary soil. This activates the soil and enables it to permanently hold far greater quantities of minerals and nutrients than would otherwise be possible. This then sets into motion a complex and still not fully understood chain of events that include microorganism growths throughout the soil, which results in the soil becoming terra preta soil within several years.

This remarkable soil is found in abundance in the black earth were pottery shards and remnants, mixed in with other organic matter to create possibly the richest mass of intentional earth on the planet. Even National Geographic reports that terra preta is not to be found anywhere else on earth. 

In the September 2008 issue of National Geographic, "Where Food Begins," maps and illustrations of terra preta vs. normal soil are depicted from the central region of South America. (Can't find a link for the graphics, but they are on page 9293 of the magazine.)

Another thing about these illustrations that struck me is higher on the same map. The "fertility" chart graphics indicate a strip through the central United States that is rated as ‘highly fertile.’ It appears to me that the highly fertile area includes Oklahoma. A large area of unusually deep top soil is just north of us, in Kansas. This is great news for anyone trying to raise a garden in this part of the country. This may explain why folks living in southeastern Oklahoma are able to raise such prolific crops.

The latest issue of Mother Earth News also has an article of the ‘ancient’ soil building technique. They renamed it ‘char,’ but it apparently works as nutrients bond to charcoal for nutritional longevity.

So throw a dart and live where you will, but the aforementioned map indicates to me, that if you are truly interested in food growing potential, the central United States is the place to be. Tornados for sure, but no pesky hurricanes, desert or higher than average drought predictions.

With all the solid information and resources for making your own wonderful compost, soil enrichment is preferable to soil building any day of the week. I’m blessed with sandy loamy soil, so weed control and soil amendment are my main goals in building my garden spot.

Go here to find a contemporary recipe for Terra Preta. Mix up a batch and invite me over.

Soil Are Us; Us Are Soil

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Bob Waldrop, Compost, Home and Garden, Organic Gardening, Tips | Posted on 13-02-2009


by Robert Waldrop

Soil is fundamental to agriculture and gardening and thus is fundamental to human life. Fertile topsoil is a precious resource, and there is less and less of it all the time. Half of Oklahoma’s top soil is now somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know if it is helping or hurting things there, but the loss of topsoil here at home is critical. If we want to step forward into a more sustainable future, we need to take care of our soil. That way the soil can take care of us.  

The first rule is do no harm. No noxious chemicals on your soil or plants–no herbicides, pesticides, or  chemical fertilizers. Yes, its true. Even Miracle Gro will damage your soil over the long term. It is not nice to poison Mother Nature. We shall indeed reap what we have sown, and if we continually sow poison, that is what we will harvest. Do No Harm!

Next, cultivate an attitude of loving stewardship towards whatever land you are responsible for, whether that be a 1/7 of an acre city lot or a thousand acre farm. The ground you walk on is a vital resource. To let it just wash down the river is like flushing money down the toilet. (We do that too, but that’s another column for a later day.)

If you have any bare soil, mulch it. Bare soil is eroding soil. Cover it with a nice layer of grass clippings, shredded leaves, chipped tree limbs, whatever you happen to have handy–several inches at least. Mulch decomposes, so its like a compost pile. The floor of a forest is always covered in mulch. That’s one way that nutrients are cycled, but please don’t buy bags of “cypress mulch” as that is made by chopping down mature cypress trees and shredding them. 

Nutrient accumulator plants gather up nutrients from soil and make them available to other plants. Areas with perennial food producing plants like fruit trees and berry bushes will benefit from the presence of nutrient accumulator plants like comfrey, dandelion, fennel, lambs quarters, thistles, vetch, plantain, alfalfa, burdock, caraway, dock, lemon balm, sorrel, or pigweed. Yes, many people consider some of these weeds, but one person’s weed is another person’s valuable nutrient accumulator! One time someone showed up and wanted to help with my garden. The first thing they did was reach down to pluck up a dandelion.  I am afraid I actually screeched, “Don’t pick the dandelions!” They were very confused until I explained the importance and many uses of "weeds."

Nitrogen fixing plants take nitrogen from the air and with the assistance of beneficial bacteria in the soil, make it available to other plants. These include all the legumes (peas, beans), all the clovers and vetches, alfalfa, and some trees (black locust, autumn olive, Kentucky coffee tree, mimosa, mesquite, wisteria). 

Do not till. Once you start to plow or till, you open the soil to erosion. I have never tilled my annual garden space. I keep it constantly covered with mulch, so there is a steady compost process going on all the time, just like the floor of a forest. I never walk on the garden beds, that way the soil doesn’t get compacted. When I set out plants, I simply make a little hole in the mulch, scoop enough dirt out to accommodate the plant, and put it back in place. Planting seeds, I follow the same procedure–make a little hole in the soil and plant the seed. The only seeds that I have to actually remove the mulch for are carrots, which I typically mix with sand and broadcast. After they sprout, and I thin them a bit, mulch goes back on the soil. Nature doesn’t till the soil, but even so plants manage to take root and grow. Tilling not only exposes the soil to erosion, it hurts earthworms and other micro flora and micro fauna in the soil, mixes up soil layers, buries organic matter in the soil, and is a lot of hard work. So let’s invest our hard work in other areas where it is needed and skip the tilling this year in favor of deep mulch. Let the earthworms do the work! 

Happy soil grows happy plants, and that leads to happy gardeners. So let’s all take better care of our soil this year, so that the soil can continue to care for us and our children and our children’s children for generations to come.

Compostable Corn-Plastic? Yes and No

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Public Works, Science, Tricia Dameron, Waste Management | Posted on 23-01-2009


by Tricia Dameron

New "bioplastics" are labeled "compostable" but require industrial composting processes.
Human ingenuity has discovered yet another use for corn: bioplastic,
specifically in the form of 
disposable flatware. Have you seen these
products? You might not even know the difference, except that they melt
a lot easier. They look just like their petroleum-based counterparts.
What's the attraction? Well, for one, they are not made from petroleum.
That's a plus. But, they are made from a foodstuff, which is a growing
concern in this age of corn ethanol. Another advantage of polylactic
acid (PLA), the technical name for the resin, is that it's compostable. Well, at least that's what one
would assume from reading the product label. However, that's not the
complete Five months in the compost pile has caused no change in the "compostable" corn-based plastic cups.
story. It's compostable, yes, but only in a commercial
facility.  According to this Scientific American
article, there are only 113 
industrial-grade composting facilities in
the U.S. I wonder how many of these facilities accept public drop-offs?
Some of these products are labeled with the term "biodegradable." To be
clear, these items are not biodegradable in a landfill; they might
degrade in 100 or 1,000 years. Landfills are designed to entomb our
waste to prevent contamination of the environment; in turn, the
"bio"—the sun, air, fungus—of "biodegrade" is removed from the process.

Products marked code 7 are accepted by Waste Management, but it is unclear whether they are actually recycled.
So, if backyard composting doesn't work, can you put them in your
recycle bin? Apparently, it's not that straightforward. NatureWorks, a
PLA manufacturer owned in-part by Cargill, says PLA has no negative impact on the quality of flake produced from recycling PET and HDPE plastics. Yet, this Smithsonian article states that PLA is considered a contaminant when found in the recycle stream of PET. Some bioplastics may be imprinted with resin code 7. If so, these are accepted by Waste Management in Oklahoma City, but are they actually recycled? No industry representative would go on the record to confirm or deny it.

situations where reusable plates and flatware are not feasible, it
would be nice to have an option like these corn-based plastics—an
option made from renewable resources that biodegrade. However,
at this point it seems our infrastructure does not support the intended
benefits of these products. It would also seem that there needs to be truth in marketing to reflect these limitations.

Microbial Life in the Garden

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Farming, Home and Garden, Homesteading, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell, Science, Tips | Posted on 21-11-2008


by Ron Ferrell

I’m always on the search for more information about how to grow food, and lately I’ve been exploring YouTube for related topics. Two processes that I’ve discovered on YouTube involve the introduction of effective microbes into the composting and gardening process. I’ve felt for a while that something was missing in my compost and gardening process, and after some research I think EM (effective microbes) may be the key to a great garden. I would encourage you to do your own research, but since I talk to lots of people about gardening and effective microbes have never surfaced as a topic, this may be new to you as well.

BOKASHI:  Japanese for fermented organic matter. There are a few good videos on YouTube, and if you google this topic, there are many instructive articles. Basically the Japanese figured out how to kill the smell of your compost bucket with the introduction of effective microbes. It’s a simple recipe once you get the correct ingredients, and this greatly enhances your garden, via the compost pile.

I made my first batch of Bokashi last evening. It has to age for 2 weeks before use, but if what I’m reading holds true, then I plan to introduce it into my composting toilet to aid decomposition, reduce smell of any waste byproduct, and add healthy organisms into my garden. 

COMPOST TEA:  This almost speaks for itself, but the YouTube videos also include the effective microbes and Arctic or Alaskan humus to introduce a wide array of microbial life into your garden as a foliar spray and or fertilizer. There are kits you can buy to do the aeration of water and use their brand of effective microbes, but you can easily shop for the components elsewhere. 

The YouTube videos show incredible vegetable gardens, almost too good to be true, but once again, I researched as best I could on Google to find related or corresponding articles.  Very exciting. I want to hear about your discoveries.

In regard to harmful additives, I’m concerned, because I haul in tons of horse manure (stall mix as I call it), about the horse wormer and its effect on earthworms and red wiggler worms. I don’t have an answer, yet, but considering I’ve hauled in many truck loads of stall mix over the past year, it’s not as if I can back up now. So I’ve been studying the information found on Google in regard to this. There are several reports and studies, and I will let you come to your own decision as to its use. I think all is not lost for me, as the reports for its continued use are cautiously optimistic.  

The wormer topic also holds true for sheep, cattle, and most all livestock, so inform yourself and beware of what you’re putting into your compost pile. I started hauling in all this free manure, and didn’t do my research on the front end. I’m hopeful it’s not too late. Since I have plans to introduce microbes into my garden/composting process, I’m hopeful that these effective microbes will also help to rehabilitate any horse wormer induced destruction. I now plan to inoculate every truck load of manure with approximately 5 gallons of EM compost tea, hot compost for at least a year before introducing into the garden, aerate the pile well, expose the pile to as much sunshine as possible and pray for healthy worms.

Feeding the Worms

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Organic Gardening, Tips, Tricia Dameron | Posted on 05-09-2008


by Tricia Dameron

I was first exposed to worm composting during my stint working at the Hike Inn in the mountains of north Georgia. The lodge had an extensive setup to accommodate the kitchen and paper waste of about 150 guests per week. The worms feasted on all that waste, and we used the castings (poo) to fertilize our garden. On the guided facility tour, guests were enthralled with the story of the disappearing khakis—after being in the worm bin for about a month, all that remained was the zipper and button!

When I came down from the mountain, I scaled back the worm setup I learned at the Hike Inn to accommodate my city apartment. My own operation consisted of a plastic bin with holes drilled in the sides for air circulation. I educated my friends and family on what was and was not "worm friendly." For example, coffee grounds: worm friendly. Old pesto: not worm friendly (Red wiggler worms breathe through their skin and oil coats them, hindering respiration.). Of course, you can experiment on your own. Some items are deemed unfriendly not because the worms object, but because of the other critters you will attract or the smells that will ensue.

Vermicomposting provides for some "learning opportunities," like the time my worm bin was invaded by soldier flies. A friend and I spent an afternoon picking out the larvae and tossing them over the balcony, only to find out later that the flies pose no threat to worm health. The bin was stored outside, so it made no matter when the flies started stumbling out of the bin to take flight. Then, in the winter of 2006, my worms all decided to escape and would dry up and die in their dash for freedom. I felt like such a bad mom. (My maternal shortfalls aren’t limited to worms. Until recently, I raised an avocado tree that sprouted from a pit I tossed in the worm bin. It died, too… My green thumb is having a prolonged germination.) 

Worm flow
If you manage to keep your worms alive over winter,
there’s a place to take the waste when the heap is frozen. Besides the practical purposes, a worm bin is an educational tool showing how to turn “waste” into green energy for the garden. Peeking around inside is sure to amaze little kids and adults, alike!

If you are interested in worm composting, let me know ( and I’ll email you a vermicompost primer I created in grad school. If you are interested in more in-depth instructions, check out Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, the late Worm Woman.

Some helpful links:

The Worm Woman

Worm Solutions: local worm farm

Battling Weeds and Drought with Cardboard and Compost

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Compost, Farming, Organic Gardening, Ron Ferrell | Posted on 22-08-2008


by Ron Ferrell
Since this is my first blog effort, it seems obvious that I should start with a most wonderful feature of this late August gardening season……RAIN, and plenty of rain to do a gardener proud.  I know how tough it is to keep a garden wet in the summer, especially in the ‘dry’ heat of July and August, but not this August.  Heck, I’m thinking about building a fire in my stove this evening it is so cool. 

For days and months without such prosperous skies, I’ve got phase two of my sustainable project near Jones, a layered garden. When I set out to build a sustainable structure two summers ago, I knew that I would have a small garden on my place to grow my two favorite summer foods, tomatoes and okra.  I didn’t have the energy at the time to dream that I would now be building a very large, compost based vegetable garden and have lots more than tomatoes and okra and much more captured soil. 

About the time I bought my acreage, I attended a permaculture garden class in which cardboard, compost and mulch were the 3 ingredients the teacher used to make an almost instant strawberry patch. I was amazed at how quickly she was able to build a garden, and it didn’t take long for me to decide that this would be the new gardening technique for my garden since it appeared to eliminate weeds and conserve moisture.  As any beginning gardener knows, the most daunting tasks on the path to fresh veggies are weed control and moisture upkeep. Those darn weeds love nutrients and water too!

When I bought my place in 2006, there was an incredible crop of weeds where the previous owner had built a fence around what was an intended garden.  I suppose the fence was to keep the weeds out, but the weeds had migrated in and they were equally tall inside and outside of the gated fence.  What a mess, and to top it off, there were jumbles of grape-less grape vines, poison ivy, poke and any other undesirable weed you can name all grown in and through that wonderful, two-layer fence.

In the middle of this weed garden there was a barrel with no bottom in the ground. I asked the guy what was the purpose of the barrel.  He proceeded to explain that his dad had a barrel in his tomato patch, and he would fill the barrel with manure and water through it for the tomatoes planted around. What a great idea, organic ‘tea’ supplied via sub irrigation. 

I decided that I would combine these two processes and plant some tomatoes that might produce while I was building my ecohut, as I didn’t have the time or energy to tend a garden. And grow they did! I had eight-foot-tall plants and plenty of tomatoes along with lots and lots of weeds in and out of the fenced in garden area but NOT where the cardboard and straw mulch were. Plus, it was apparent that the area was much, much easier to keep wet. I fertilized my tomatoes in the barrel with a dry, organic recipe I found in Mother Earth News, and that worked well. 

Two years ago at this time, I was still building my ecohut. Now that it’s done, I am in the third year of my tomato efforts and doing quite well.  I now have much more garden planted, but my main efforts are now doing what I call "capturing soil."  Capturing soil involves knocking the weeds down in another intended garden area with a lawn mower or whatever weapon you have, adding organic matter and worm food, covering the area or rows with cardboard, and then applying lots of straw or old hay and finally laying "stall mix" or other organic material on top of that.  I DO NOT ROTO-TILL AT ALL.   This is strictly layering organic matter on top of organic matter.  The size of my garden spots are determined by how much cardboard and organic matter I have on hand. 

Happy Gardening!