Making Compost in Jalisco

Compost making: Adding a layer of dried leaves

The city turns off the water during the day, so 55-gal barrels are filled for use during the day. Labor-intensive hand watering makes us appreciate when the water is flowing out of a hose.
The city turns off the water during the day, so 55-gal barrels are filled early each morning. Labor-intensive hand watering makes us appreciate when the water is flowing out of a hose.
Dried cow manure from a stockyard provides a layer of norogen
Dried cow manure from a stockyard provides a layer of nitrogen.
The day before this event several members borrowed a truck and went to the local stockyard to shovel manure into bags.
The day before this event several members borrowed a truck and went to the local stockyard to shovel manure into bags.

We built the pile one layer at a time, like a huge sandwich: Alternating dry material with green material, then a layer of soil. Another way to look at it is layering nitrogen-rich material with carbon-dense matter and then another layer of soil and or compost. We made the pile large enough to create an insular mass for the microbes to thrive. In the tropics 3 foot by 3 foot by 3 foot works. In temperate climates increase that to four-foot all around.

Basically, compost mimics nature's process of decomposition.
Basically, compost mimics nature’s process of decomposition.

After lunch we came inside to review the soil food web and the basics of making compost.

If you explore a forest floor below the leaf litter, you find humus, the result of an entire soil food web. Compost is a way to speed up the process by providing the decomposers—soil bacteria, fungi and invertebrates with all the nutrients they need. We work with microbes when we make bread, yogurt, or sauerkraut. Compost is messier and larger but is similar in that we are creating an environment for microbes to thrive and directing their behavior to produce a product we want.

The building blocks of compost are  nitrogen-rich material for strong bodies, carbon-rich material for organisms to energetically reproduce, air so the pile stays aerobic and doesn’t go putrid, water to hydrate to microbes, and soil or aged compost to inoculate the pile with organisms.

Compost enhances the garden in so many ways:

  • It reintroduces soil microbes to soils that have been damaged by chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
  • It improves the soil ecosystem and encourages beneficial microorganisms that protect plants from pathogens while  soil fungi bind with and filter out toxins.
  • Compost prevents soil erosion by improving soil structure. Soil rich in organic matter is more porous; it allows air and water to move and be held, it has good tilth.
  •  “Feed the soil and the soil feeds the plants,” is a famous Alan Chadwick quote I learned years ago. Compost feeds soil microbes that in turn release enzymes and hormones that promote healthy plant growth. Decomposing organic matter releases nutrients. The dead bodies of microbes act as slow-release fertilizer, providing nutrients over time.

Gardening at Casa Colibri

I first saw the garden from Google Earth’s satellite photo; it looks like a medieval monastic garden. I scanned the town from above with one clue—Casa Colibri is next to one of the two rodeos in Hostotipaquillo. This photo of the garden is from the second floor. The toolsGardenshed roof is in the foreground. All the beds are enclosed with concrete blocks because in the rainy season a creek flows through and out through the garage and onto the street. The force of the water has washed soil from between the cobblestone of the lane.

The calle During the three weeks I was there I taught the new members basic organic gardening and answered  the questions of the experienced gardeners. We started with soil fertility and built two compost piles.  I showed them how to double dig. We made potting soil by sifting and mixing together compost, sand Chard, calendula, kholrabiand local pumice.



At sunset we walked down the cobblestone streets of Hostotipaquillo, Jalisco, a place not found in any gringo guidebook. This colonial town has so much potential that a group of intrepid newcomers are encouraging local officials to seek the honored designation as a

pueblo magico.Street of Hostotipaquillo

Lida, a 50-yr old former lawyer and nonprofit director from LA invited me to the lookout point called Cejatita, or the Eyebrow. As we walked, I asked Lida how she heard about Casa Colibri, the Catholic Worker community of volunteers where I will live for three weeks. Since I arrived she has been the most helpful, explaining the schedule and the ins and outs of life here.

“I’ve known Manuel for a long time, and I visited here twice before. He’s been inviting me to come live here, so last summer when my job ended, I decide to give it a try. I love it, this is home for now.”

“How do you know him?

“When I volunteered at the Catholic Workers in LA I worked with him doing a huge mosaic mural. We’ve been friends for years.”

We arrived at the lookout point, an escarpment about 400 feet above the scrubby plain, and beyond that to the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental. An updraft blew through the foliage of the stunted Copal and Acacia trees clinging to the rocks, creating a constant hum. The vast expanse silenced my mind.

When I returned to this place again over the next couple of weeks, I began to read the landscape; off to the west I first heard and then saw a bus coming down the long grade that brought me here. The features below were spread out like a quilt with a child’s miniature world. I began to look within the vast scrubby plains and tree-covered hills and could recognize ejidos, individually farmed parcels that are owned by the townsfolk’s community.

“What do you think that area over there is? See it, surrounded by rocks?”

“That’s probably a corral for horses or cows.”

While mostly grazing land, small fields or milpas had been cut into the dense growth.  It was four months into the dry season and the deciduous trees  belied the lush potential that summer rains bring forth.  The next time I stood here at Cejatita was after a trip to a local ranch; I was able to trace some of our route and see the communal grazing land that Beto’s cow had wandered away from, looking for greener pastures. The cows down there looked so tiny.

A photo taken from the back of a pickup truck while we waited for the farmer to catch his prized holstein. She was running thorough the campo.
A photo taken from the back of a pickup truck while we waited for the farmer to catch his prized Holstein. She was running thorough the campo.

Friday morning I studies Spanish while the members worked on the current mission statement for Casa Colibri.

The community of Casa Colibri listed their priorities.
The community of Casa Colibri listed their priorities. I think someone told me they were equally important values.

Then I helped with lunch preparation. Three days a week the Catholic Workers prepare lunch for 15-20 local kids—mostly from poor or dysfunctional families. One family of nine kids often shows up.

“See those kids,” Manuel said to me the first time I help serve the rambunctious lot, “I grew up poor like them. I was the youngest of eight.”

Manuel started Casa Colibri after living at the Los Angleles Catholic Workers for many years. Before that he grew up in Mexico and went through a Jesuit seminary, but decided becoming a priest was not for him. The Catholic Worker vision of modeling one’s life on the simple and radical actions of Jesus Christ resonated with him. He has been the constant and guiding force to make this dream a reality in rural Mexico. His humble demeanor hides his creative gifts, charisma and perseverance.

On my last night in Mexico, before boarding the plane in Guadalajara, we stayed at his friend’s house who took us out for dinner at an upscale restaurant that served vegetarian dishes. Shortly after we ordered, a well dressed couple motioned him over to their table. I was surprised, but my host Mauricio said,

“Oh, Manuel is famous, everyone loves him.”

At lunch there are rules for the kids:  hand-washing before sitting, everyone recites a simple singsong thanksgiving prayer before eating, kids stay in their seats while eating, and vegetables must be eaten before tacos or beans.  Often they want seconds and thirds. There is plenty of food for all. The kids can be so loving and affectionate, demanding and rude. There is a beautiful bond between them and the members of the Casa. The children warmly included me in the group.Waiting for lunchPhoto timeAlthough Casa Colibri has a small budget, in the seven years since they purchased the property, they have renovated the house and built an addition. The first thing they did in the garden was to remove the concrete and chicken coops that covered the ground.

To be continued!

Garden Planning

Here are several suggestions for keeping garden records. They are useful tools for planning the garden including permanent plantings, crop rotation, and seed saving. This is a sample from the seed saving curriculum I developed for Organic Seed Alliance.

Mapping the Garden

Description: Gardeners and farmers map their home garden or field site as the first step toward systematic garden planning.

Objective: Create an accurate map of garden or field as a base plan for graphically planning garden activities: annual planting plan, crop rotation and seed saving.


100 ft tape measure, 30 ft tape measure,

24” x 36” paper, newsprint or drafting vellum,

Mechanical pencil, .5mm

Architect’s or engineer’s scale (a simple ruler can work.)

Camera for photographing the baseline or landmarks, and shooting the same site from different angles.

Compass for determining north, aligning the map correctly, and determining an initial understanding of the Sun’s arc across the sky.

Mapping a garden or farm can be the first step in designing a garden or farm fields; it provides structure and order. Maps are useful for:

  • General gardening concerns: crop rotation, green manure or cover crop, succession planting.
  • Identifying plantings of crop varieties that have lost their label.
  • Establishing beds with permanent isolation tents.
  • Maps work in tandem with garden journals.
  • Planning isolation distances for growing seed crops by determining if the site provides sufficient distance or if you need to plant adjacent edible or flowering crops as physical barriers to the spread of pollen.

Preparation: Regional gardening clubs, master gardeners, or seed libraries might invest in these tools and offering them in a lending capacity.

Action: Mapping the site with 1inch = 4 ft, or 1 inch = 8 ft, or 1ft = 10 ft Start with Baseline. A is zero. Mark every foot in a small garden or every 10 feet in a larger site. Then measure points at right angles to the baseline by using another tape measure. (For example: The garden shed is 7.5 ft to the east of baseline at 12 feet from point A. The first bed begins 3 feet to the west of the baseline at 21 feet from A, and so on.)


Start with one location and label that A. Measure A to next landmark (tree, building, or water faucet) mark B, record distance. Then A to another point labeled C, measure and record distance. B to C. Measure and record distance. Once a point is anchored by triangulation, go on to connect to next feature, once again using triangulation. This is particularly useful in determining relative positions of trees and other free standing landmarks on the property in relationship to the garden, field or growing site.  Draw an approximation. Indoors use the 24 inch by 36 inch page and architect’s scale to accurately record everything. Use pencil and eraser. Use triangles or straight edges  to keep lines clean and accurate.

Photos reinforce the visuals when you refine the map indoors. Continue reading Garden Planning

Garden Crops from an Ecological Perspective

Biological systems often unfold in cycles. The cultivated crop cycle is often interrupted: seeds germinate, seedlings sprout, plants leaf out, and crops mature. Depending on what part of the plant we value as edible, the vegetable may never fully mature before its remains are tossed on the compost pile. In seed saving we allow the crop to complete its cycle like any other flowering plant. (Some crops are completely dependent on us to reproduce, especially in cold climates.) Let’s let that carrot, lettuce, or kohlrabi complete it’s cycle. The robust plant is ready.

Soon flowers emerge, advertising a plant’s sexual maturity. Petals act as scented banners enticing flying insect cupids to sip nectar. As the visiting insect works its way through the fertile flowers it brushes up against pollen grains that cling to it.  The insect courier carries pollen to the next flower. There are two events that must happen for flowers to produce viable seed—pollination and fertilization. When a ripe anther splits open and a fertile pollen grain lands on the stigma of a female reproductive organ, the first hurdle is achieved. The next journey is internal and results in a pregnant flower that swells with the fruit of a new life—One friend remembers the difference as recreation versus procreation. Fruits can be juicy as tomatoes or hard as mustard seed. The seed itself may look inert but not only does it hold the potential to produce an edible plant, it will contribute genetic coding for generations to come.

Biodiversity assures that there are many ways for this seed-to-seed cycle to unfold. The observant seed saver begins to recognize patterns that are consistent throughout plant families. The basics of botany provide a shortcut to hone our observation skills and develop the seed-saving expertise that humans have been sharing for 10,000 years.  We use botanical terms to define plant anatomy and scientific terms to describe processes. This jargon provides a common language to convey the principles of seed saving. The important thing is to observe, understand what we see, and then apply the principles through time-honored techniques.

Nori Harvesting Along the Mendocino Coast

Toasted nori is an incredibly delicious and nutritious snack. The secret starts with harvesting it in the clean Pacific waters off the Mendocino coast. Matthew Frey has been doing this for years and Tuesday I had a chance to go collecting with him.

Since the tide was a super- low one,  -1.7,  the first thing he wanted to do was dive for abalone with two fellows. He had promised to show them the place where the big abalone could be found. This is story is about nori and if we’re lucky, I’ll have time to weave the story of abalone hunting tomorrow.

North of Fort Bragg, Matthew stopped in one of the many coastal access trails along California’s Hwy 1. We scrambled down the coastal cliff carpeted in lush vegetation. He was down to the shore in no time, followed by his tiny companions, Cayo and Piqi. These little dogs go everywhere with him. Together, the three glided over rocks while I was still clutching at Coyote Bushes and easing down the cliff. When I caught up with them, Matthew pointed out the shiny dark olive-green seaweeds draped over a huge boulder.

My knowledge of the intertidal zone is limited to the relatively quiet waters of the Salish Sea, otherwise known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, far to the north. That water separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island. Up there, nori or Porphyra, grows slowly. When the tide is out, the seaweed that grows high up on the shore, looks shiny black and appears plastered on the rocks. I have never seen much of it, but here, along California’s coast, nori grows in thick patches, layer-upon-layer.  Matthew showed me how to tear off the seaweed without ripping the holdfast that anchors it to the rocks.

Allow me a brief digression here: I love seaweeds! I love the way they grow in a nutrient-rich broth that is the sea. Seaweeds don’t need roots! They drink minerals from the surface of their leaf-like blades. They don’t need to fight gravity the way terrestrial beings do; seaweeds float. The trade-off is that these marine plants need to be sturdy enough to withstand the pounding surf. Not only that, but they need to survive the desert conditions of low tide. Imagine three- to six- hour stretches of exposure to the rays of the sun, when the tide rolls away. These plants are highly adaptable! Well, since I did say a “brief digression”, I’ll get back to the story.

After filling our bags, we returned to the car and drove up the coast. A few miles farther we pulled over at another of his favorite spots. The trail wound through ceanothus and a field interspersed with Monterray pine and cypress. Along the edge of the cliff, Pacific Coast Iris were blooming in patches. I could see them close up as we descended the trail. We began gathering more nori.

Matthew showed me places where other harvesters had come before us. One patch was reduced to shreds. At a second location, the seaweed looked like young spring growth and we guessed that it had been cut and allowed to regrow. Sustainable wildcrafting, or gathering plants in the wild, requires sensitivity to the ecology and respect for limits. A Pomo tribal man showed Matthew how to harvest many years ago. See the next post for cleaning and drying the nori.

Grape Seed Oil–How the Freys Make It

When grapes are pressed to make wine the fruit matter not used is made into compost. Green grapes are crushed and pressed and the discarded material includes the skins, seeds and the many little branches that make up a grape cluster. When the Freys make red wine, the crushed matter all goes into the tanks with the juice. After the wine has started to ferment and the grape skins have lent their flavor and color to the wine, the seeds are removed to be composted. At this stage the seeds are easy to separate from fruit flesh and skin. Rather than composting all of them, some are saved to make oil.

One of the season’s interns, Josh Khankhanian, hauled the seeds to the new concrete track from the warehouse to the bottling room. this clean surface was a perfect place to dry the wet membrane around the seeds. I got to help by raking the seeds after they dried for a day.

After they dried for several days the grape seeds were ready to be cleaned.

Drying Grape Seeds for Making Oil

Clipper Seed Cleaner–the Wonder Machine

Here is an amazing seed-cleaning machine that Matthew Frey found through eBay five years ago. After a couple of weeks of research, he knew what he was looking for and found it on the web.

This is the Clipper Seed Cleaner, designed back in the 1920’s. He located it in the Dakotas and had it shipped out. The Freys were originally looking for something to clean the grain they grow. When it arrived, Matthew took it all apart and cleaned it.Then he sealed the wood with beeswax. There wasn’t a motor, so he installed one. The body is mostly wood with metal attachments. The screens are sheet metal with holes drilled through. When the Clipper arrived, several screens were too rusty to use. Matthew found some screens a neighbor had that he refit to the Clipper.

The Freys use it to clean grain, sunflower seeds for oil and grape seeds for oil. This is roughly how it works:

  • Two metal screens are selected and fitted into the body–one with larger mesh than the seed the other with smaller.
  • The rough seed and debris go onto the hopper.
  • The engine makes the screens vibrate like mad.
  • Josh or Matthew uses a small hand broom to push grape seed through.
  • There are several chutes one where larger debris can tumble down and away.
  • The grape-seed (or any other seed) drops through to the second screen along with any debris the same size or smaller. Chaff falls through the bottom screen.
  • The machine was designed to drop clean seed into a small container on the ground.

Learn more about this machine at:

Josh Cleaning Grape Seeds

Since the Freys sometimes process up to 3,000 pounds of wheat in a year, Matthew didn’t want the grain coming out close to the ground. He wanted to place 50-pound sacs in place to fill easily, so he designed a vacuum hopper that pulls the seed up and then can drop into the bag. I saw a similar machine at the Humboldt Organic Seed Field Day last summer. Check out the post on grape seed oil to see more pictures of the clipper in action.

Walnuts are Ripe

Last year I bought a 20-pound sac of walnuts from Don Butow, a local farmer, for $12.50 and cracked and ate them for snacks until July of this year. I cracked one open when I wanted cookies. I cracked and ate them when I craved chips. I ate them in the morning with my breakfast cereal and sometimes at night with stir-fry veggies. I brought the last of them with me to John Barr’s sixtieth birthday party in August.

I went back for more in October and discovered the walnut harvest was two-weeks late this year. The farmer showed me two varieties of trees and described their strengths and weaknesses. When I asked if he planted them, Butow told me they were growing and producing nuts when he moved there as a boy in ’47. Mayrick, the sweeter varietyFranquette and Mayrick Walnuts didn’t do as well in the late-spring rains, but the other, Franquette, a variety that flowers later, flourished.  He also found out that it did better in the early-fall rains because the seam stays closed even when wet.

These nuts, sometimes known as English or Persian Walnuts grow on trees that can be up to 90-feet tall. Juglans regia is indigenous to western and central Asia, and southeastern Europe. People everywhere cultivate walnuts from China, to Pakistan, to Mexico, and the USA. The green fruit, or husk, has pulp surrounding the hard brown shell. The seam along the perimeter splits when the shell is cracked to expose the seeds that look like two halves of a brain.

If your town is graced with old English walnut trees, but everyone says they are too bitter to eat, and the sidewalks are littered with smashed nuts, gleaners don’t despair! I found a useful insight from Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener. Gather walnuts as soon as they fall. The bitterness comes from the rotting husk that has turned brown. In dry regions the husk often slips off easily, but in rainy areas the husk decomposes in place, leaching tannins into the nut. Another tip to remember, green nuts taste better after curing or aging. Remove the husk and air dry the nuts in a sheltered spot for two weeks before eating.

What wealth to have local nuts! Plant them and you create a legacy for the future.

Lentil Crackers

I went to the Renaissance Market in Ukiah to talk to the owner and ask him for suggestions of local farmers who might contribute to Ecology Action’s upcoming celebration dinner.  As luck would have it, John Jeavons was just then on the air on KZYX. Scott Cratty, the market’s owner, didn’t hear the show, but another man, who walked into the market just before me, did. He was Doug Mosel, the creator and manager of the Mendocino Grain Cooperative. He had always liked what he heard about Jeavons and was willing to contribute some lentils. I was enthusiastic because eating locally-grown beans is my idea of eating locally. Beans make up a major part of the protein in my diet. Grains are good, but I don’t really bake anymore, although someday I’ll have my own kitchen again and make incredible pies, my baking claim to fame.

Doug told me that the grain cooperative could not spare enough lentils to feed all the guests expected at the dinner. Instead he offered a smaller amount of lentils ground into flour for the dinner. So, I baked lentil crackers that we served as appetizers.

I found a recipe online for garbanzo bean crackers and it turned out well.You can find similar recipes at I always vary recipes, and in one batch I added nori, Porhyra, a seaweed that Matthew Frey gathered on the Mendocino coast.


  • 3/4 c ground flax seed
  • 2 1/2 c water
  • 4 c lentil flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 4 Tbs dried rosemary
  • substitute 1/2 c nori flakes


  1.  Make flax egg by mixing water and flax. Set aside to thicken
  2. Mix dry ingredients
  3. Add wet ingredients to dry and stir to combine.
  4. Wet hands with water, and remove dough from bowl.
  5. Place dough on a parchment paper-laden baking sheet,and flatten by hand. ( I used a rolling-pin) The thinner the crisper.
  6. Prick dough with a fork to score them into squares.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
  8. Remove from oven when top and edges begin to brown.
  9. Cool for half hour before eating or storing, so they can crisp.

A hearty thank-you goes out to Doug and the Mendocino Grain Cooperative. I may just save up and join next year. If you want to join contact him at: