Composting 101

Just for this post, I actually turned the compost.  Shock! :)

Just for this post, I actually turned the compost. Shock! 🙂

“‘Organic matter’ (read: almost-raw sewage) for the garden costs WHAT?” I said while perusing the offerings of a big-box garden center.  “Are they kidding?  Are we really stupid enough to pay that for it?”

As it turns out, we were.

But that day three years ago got me thinking.  While we need to amend our garden soil every year, there’s no rule saying it has to be bagged and brought home in the trunk of the car.  I have vivid memories of my grandmother carrying a plastic bucket to the barn and collecting rich, dark loam for her roses.  Granddad did the same for the vegetable garden.  It was never lost on me that the cows who produced the original material were long, long gone.  That my grandparents still had plenty of organic matter for the gardens after so many years always made me wonder exactly how many cattle they kept anyway.

At any rate, I wondered on that chilly (and smelly) spring morning why I couldn’t go about making my own loam for our gardens.  We might not have cows, sheep, or goats, but we do have a kitchen that produces a pound or so of food scraps every day.  I’d far rather dump them into a pile to compost and to use in the garden than send them to the landfill.

Knowing that my Darling would object in the strongest possible terms to my placing a pile of worm food anywhere near the house, I set about making a spot in the farthest possible corner of the back yard.  And I started putting everything even remotely organic in it.  Food scraps?  Check.  Coffee filters with grounds?  Yep.  Tea bags?  Uh-huh.  Refrigerator Cleaning-Out Day?  You betcha.  Lawn clippings, shrub trimmings, flower deadheads….  It all went into my compost heap.

At first, I was pretty conscientious about turning the pile every few weeks.  But then it got hot, I got busy, summer passed into fall, and before I knew it Christmas had rolled around and the compost hadn’t been touched in months except to add to the stack.  And you know what?  I just left it alone.  After all, Mother Nature has been composting a LOT longer than I have, and I’ve never seen her running around with a shovel or rake to turn the piles.

One of my shop foremen.  Okay, even I was a little creeped out by this giant earthworm in the compost heap.

One of my shop foremen. Okay, even I was a little creeped out by this giant earthworm in the compost heap.

Besides, I noticed that the pile got much warmer when I left it alone.  I took that to mean that the bacteria and other creepy-crawlies were doing their thing.  I figured they probably would not thank me for tearing the roof off their house while they were busy.  And the barn cats from next door liked to hang out and nap on top of the warm heap when the weather got cold.  When I noticed them digging for food, I also started making sure to put out leftover meat and fat scraps for them.  Those cats are long gone, but I still put out meat for any critters that want it.  Compost Corner has become a favorite spot for Alex and our own two cats to practice their scavenging skills.

One thing I’ve meant to do since the beginning is to build a container or cage to contain my project.  I have several shipping pallets that a local garden center gave me, but I’ve not taken time to put them together yet.  I also have a roll of chicken wire from another project that would make several nice composters.  And, of course, all the magazines and catalogs are filled with gadgets to “make your composting easier.”  Honestly, those guys remind me of computer and phone makers: They keep “updating” and trying to sell grander toys when the old-fashioned way works better.  Go figure.  I never buy their merchandise.  And my compost heap keeps right on producing lovely loamy soil for our gardens every year.  I’m pretty proud of it.

Our neighbors gave us lots of leaves in the fall.  Last October, this pile was about twice as high as today.

Our neighbors gave us lots of leaves in the fall. Last October, this pile was about twice as high as today.

P.S.  Last fall, the compost pile turned into a neighborhood project when we realized that our neighbors were paying to take their leaves to the landfill or trucking them across town to the Leaf Drop.  We invited them to dump their leaves in Compost Corner instead.  This spring, I have several cubic yards of great soil just waiting for a warm dry day to add to the garden and start spring planting.  Thanks, guys!

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