Saturday, March 17, 2012

Composting Boot Camp

COMPOSTING BOOT CAMP

by Marci Tsohonis

The Essential Herbal - Mar/Apr '11

The first country skill we learned after moving to a rural agricultural area was Composting. We had composted on a very small scale at our other house in the city. We didn’t end up with huge volumes of compost but it was very nourishing to the Rose beds. We had always dreamed of having a couple acres, and enough room for a large vegetable garden. So, we found an old farmhouse that needed TLC, moved out of the Hood and are receiving an ongoing education in country living skills.

We began serious composting three years ago. We piled vegetable scraps, grass, leaves, etc., into 3x4 foot mounds on a back half-acre of our property. We chose that particular spot because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were afraid large piles of compost would stink or draw bugs if they were too close to the house. There were a couple of problems with that choice, in hindsight. Compost piles need to be watered down frequently with a hose in warm weather. It helps a pile to heat up better if it is kept moist, about the consistency of a slightly wet sponge. The particulars have to do with bacterial action. Water was not easily available, early on, as we had not yet repaired the broken irrigation lines that fed that part of the property. We had to drag hoses and portable irrigation pipes 30-50 feet to get water to the pile. A properly active compost pile will not stink! The center of the pile should be uncomfortably hot if you push your fist into it.

It was also very inconvenient having the compost pile so far away from our house. Taking the kitchen scraps all the way out, around and behind the shop to the pile every day got old, fast. When my husband suffered a work injury, we realized we would either have to abandon composting temporarily or find a simpler method. Three years later, through trial and error, Mother Earth News and a few inspiring neighbors, we have discovered what works, and what doesn’t, for us. Our compost is fluffy, smells like wet earth, and is a beautiful, rich dark brown. Good compost acts like a super vitamin to most plants.

DON’T add leftover herbs generated by herbal oil infusions to your compost pile. We learned the hard way that oils and protein-type scraps attract Rodents, Skunks, and Raccoons, and slow down the composting action! A Rat ran out of our compost within days of adding the oil soaked herbs!

DO add as much fresh Comfrey and Coffee grounds to your compost as possible. Comfrey is a great compost activator, and is loaded with nutrients. Some people intentionally grow extra Comfrey for just that purpose. Egg Shells are another great addition, but need to be ground up or run through the chipper prior to adding them to the compost pile, as they just don’t break down easily. I read somewhere that some people save eggshells till they have a blender full, add water and puree them…then pour it onto the pile. But old eggshells really stink! I tried it once, and I’m not going there again.

Our neighbor, Mike, has a near perfect Mr. McGregor’s type vegetable garden anyone would envy. He shook his head in disgust the first time he saw us worrying over our compost pile. When we told him we planned to have an organic garden, he tried as hard as he could to be polite, and then started laughing! He told us that if we wanted to grow a big garden like his, we should just load up on Manure and some weed killer. Last summer, though, our organic sweet onions were bigger and juicier than his were! (O.k., so were our weeds) But guess who else in our community started composting last summer?

Our first summer here, one local orchardist drove painfully slowly each time he passed our property, clearly scrutinizing us with a baleful eye. Occasionally he would stop to ask how our weeds were growing. I should add he was usually on his way to meet other local orchardists for their weekly breakfast get together and gaggle. Pretty soon we had 3 or 4 of them stopping by (with a bratty twinkle in their eye), to ask how that or-GAN-ic gardening was going. We pretended we didn’t “get it” and were friendly to them all. Now the local orchardists bring us apples and pears, and sometimes stay for a cup of coffee.

You can begin composting quite simply by making large mounds of scraps and shredded debris from your yard. But you’ll need some muscle nearby. You must turn the piles over with a pitchfork every few days to ensure the contents cook evenly. Big piles hold the heat better than small ones. The edges of the pile can collapse when you turn them, which leads to heat loss and even more turning. My husband eventually had the genius idea to stack some abandoned cement blocks to build three “shared wall” composting stalls, each about 3 x 4 feet. The holes in the cement blocks allow air to reach every part of the compost and the blocks help to contain the edges of the piles. The cement blocks help the compost pile hold on to residual heat as well.

My husband found a small, used Chipper/Shredder on Craig’s List, for $100.00. We learned that it helps to shred the twigs, weeds, grass, leaves, and vegetable matter together before combining them into a pile. Compost will heat up twice as fast if the pieces are of a uniform size. We shred it one more time after the pile is done cooking. The end result looks and feels like rich potting soil. The Chipper/Shredder is a tool we would never want to be without. I have learned not to add Rose trimmings to the mixture in the chipper, though. No matter how finely you process them the thorns remain intact, and will find their way into your hands when you are weeding your garden.

We keep a 3 qt. bucket with lid in the kitchen, lined with a recycled plastic grocery bag. It works well as a place to store kitchen scraps and peelings until we take them out to the compost pile, which we do daily. Initially, we just used recycled bags to throw scraps in. Fair warning, sometimes the bags leak! Ewwww.

Don’t worry about having exactly the right equipment if you want to learn to compost. Good information is available in books, online and from your local extension service. Many methods work. The biggest hurdle you face is making the commitment to do it. Then one early morning next autumn you’ll see steam rising from your compost pile. You’ll know you got it right, and your garden will thank you!

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