Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Great Compost Cover-Up


Compost: Miracle Or Malarky?

If gardening is the outdoor activity of the new millenium, then compost is definitely the buzzword. This magical yet ingenuous process is, we are told, the answer to all of our problems. Rescuing our peach pits and plant clippings from a slow death in America's bulging landfills will fill our gardens with the ultimate soil amendment, while filling us with a supreme sense of environmentally correct satisfaction. And, oh yes, it's a great way to spend money.

The concurrent arrival each year of killing frost and gardening catalogs is no coincidence. Everyone knows that a gardener trapped indoors in the dead of winter can rationalize the purchase of almost anything--especially stuff we never knew we needed. Suddenly our simple backyard humus mills are incomplete without an ergonomic pile-turning tool and a box of Secret Compost Starter.

And surely our eggshells and apple cores deserve one of the high dollar 'professional' composting receptacles that seduce us with exciting names like The '49er ("Black Gold in Only Seven Weeks!"). Crafty entrepreneurs even offer special mail-order composting worms. Oh, please. If I want worms I'll get some from the Vend-A-Bait machine down at the liquor store once they get it working again.

I may have seen through the worm scam and resisted the catalog come-ons, but I will admit that I fell right into the composting trap. When I moved from urban Northern California to a remote Missouri farm, I was thrilled by the thought of turning plain old trash into practical treasure—especially when I discovered there was no garbage pick-up out here. Knowing I could never justify the purchase of a $200 trash can, I constructed a perfectly serviceable bin from wooden pallets and a tin-covered scrap of plywood that were laying around the farm.

I also started researching. I read fascinating, tell-all stories by expert composters (who I now realize are mad, and who lavish more attention on their potato peels than I do on my pets). There was, for example, the man who used scientific charts and hourly temperature readings to produce finished compost in only 14 days. His secret ingredient was abalone bits he happened to have handy—useless information for a girl who had just moved 1600 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Then there was the woman who put everything through her enormous blender and poured it straight onto her garden plots. An intriguing idea, but I didn't think my 1930s Osterizer was up to the task of pulverizing blackberry brambles and frost-bitten tomato plants. I even, while under the influence of an extremely long snowstorm, ordered a 900-page book devoted solely to the art of composting, though I've never had the courage to open it.

After two years of dragging organic debris 150 feet across the barnyard to my little homemade bin, I finally grasped the real secret behind composting: It simply does not work. My compost pile looked exactly the same as when I started it.

Okay, so maybe I did ignore a few rules, like the one about not putting in anything thicker than a quarter of an inch (who has time to chop broccoli stems into tiny pieces?), or all those nitpicky layering laws. And granted, the one time I plunged my pitchfork into the pile to turn it, it was frozen solid. But this was trash, not a full-time occupation.

At least the animals made some use of my efforts. I once lifted the plywood lid and found a litter of kittens staring up at me. Another time I walked outside shortly after tossing a big bowl of tomato skins onto the pile and saw one of the sheep staggering across the barnyard with dripping red lips and an entire pallet stuck around its neck.

After that, I took to leaving the bin open to the sheep as a snack bar, figuring the manure would make it into the garden faster than any compost might. Eventually, I decided to save myself the walk and started dumping everything a few steps into the barnyard.

The seasons changed, but my uncompost pile did not. I ignored it. But then, on a rare walk past it, I stopped to brush back some coffee grounds that had spilled out from between the wooden slats at the bottom of the pile. The realization came slowly: Those weren't coffee grounds. I had compost—in only 800 days!

Once the shock wore off, I naturally rushed out and ordered three professional composters. I figure I'll be all set as soon as the Vend-A-Bait machine gets fixed and my West Coast friends express-mail me those abalone bits. While I'm waiting, I might even crack open that 900-page book.

This article originally appeared in Garden Design magazine. I now happily co-exist with no fewer than five producing compost bins.

Now is the perfect time to start composting. It really is a wonderful thing. I use my compost all around the garden: in my seed starting mix, worked in as a soil amendment in my raised beds, and as a side dressing/mulch on plants.

The whole composting process (as you can see) can be as easy or as complicated as you care to make it. But whether you buy your compost bins or make them yourself (out of anything from wood to chicken wire), I do suggest that you start with at least two. That way you will be able to stop adding to one, giving it a chance to fully break down while you fill the second bin.

No yard? No problem. There are even "kitchen composters" available, complete with squiggly little worms that hasten the breakdown process. Your potted plants will love you for the effort. You can even water them with compost tea.

Here are a few handy links to get you started turning your trash into treasure:
A Complete Guide To Composting
What Kinds Of Things Can I Compost?
Planet Natural's Composting Tips & Supplies
Composters.com
Composting Products From (My Favorite) Pinetree Garden Seeds

© FarmgirlFare.com

21 comments:

  1. What a wonderful WHB post. I am the proud owner of a composter (discarded by neighbors who got a better one) but I don't really know what I'm doing. I didn't know about the quarter inch rule, but I do have a strip at one end of my garden where I throw things, so I guess I can put it there for 800 days and eventually it will be compost!

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  2. We have a Worm Factory that a friend lent us. We have somehow killed most of the worms. *sigh*

    Time to go to the bait shop! ;-)

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  3. I'm a big fan of composting, including vermicomposting. I/my husband will turn the compost with a shovel, we figure it'll help exercise our shoulders. ;) We've even monitored the internal temp of the bin... yeah, you can say it: anal. :) We have been harvesting leaf lettuce from our first (not last) organic garden. It was treated to some of our compost and we'd like to think it really helped with the plant's nutrition.

    Enjoy your reading!

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  4. Ya'lls liquor store has a Vend-A-Bait, too??? You truly are my soul sister.

    On topic, I once-upon-a-time worked for a landscaping company in Florida, and I'm tellin you what, there is no price a Snow Bird won't pay for some good mushroom compost.

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  5. I used to make the best compost back in San Francisco. Now, like everyone else, I just toss things out the window and figure that LBF (La Belle France) will take care if it.

    I found using hulls of cocoa beans the best if you can get them and would heat things up nicely, as well as adding a nice smell. Garden supply shops often sell them if you don't live near a factory, as I did and would show up often with a few buckets.

    Unfortunately word spread amongst the local ant population who were also interested in my compost, and when it got too cold for them outside, they decided my kitchen was a more hospitable place for teh winter.

    Plus the chocolate was better too!

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  6. Great post on compost!...and I think you are right about the experts being mad! I once found a compost covered racoon staring back at me from my bin...(back in the day when I only kept ONE bin!)

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  7. Since I am a crowd city dweller, it's near impossible for me to have a compost pile. We have a rat who commutes between five houses and I supply the shelter with my deck. The other neighbors provide bird seed for the birds and nuts for the squirrels. So the city Animal Control folks said no wood pile, no feeding the birds and no compost pile. The rat still lives here, we have skinny birds and no firewood longer than the winter months and no compost. Thank goodness compost comes in plastic bags that I can buy at the city dwellers box store! Oh how I long to live in the country!

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  8. hi again, farmgirl! after putting off vermicomposting for so long, i was gifted by a moving friend with their worms, in a sterilite bin that they kept in their basement. i've taken care of the worms for a year now and the population has doubled, so i now have two bins and will give back the first to the gift-giver, since we've moved nearer to them. it's SOOOO easy, the worms really should get all the credit. needless to say i had awesome plants last year. hopefully this year again:)

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  9. Susan,

    I guess they sell bait at the liquor store to give the Baptists a cover for being there.

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  10. What a wonderful post! Oh, how I long for a garden of my own. My little downtown condo doesn't even have a balcony ...

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  11. Well, I can't say that I've had as much trouble composting as you. My backyard bin has been a rousing success. Not so with the composting I've tried to do at my Ozarks woods. I honestly think the region lacks whatever microbes and other critters are needed to compost all of the organic matter.

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  12. I never thought a story about composting woudl be fun reading, but it was! I loved the part about the sheep and the tomato (and the pallet around its neck!

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  13. Whitey and I enjoyed this article, FG. We'd just like to remind everyone that a nice way to recycle tasty scraps into a fertile growing medium is to pass 'em through a chicken.

    We just thought we'd bring this up, 'cause of a startling omission in your later post concerning lavish breakfasts prepared for some barnyard inhabitants around here.

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  14. I too love composting and can't believe the beauty of the resulting soil. The colour is so stunningly beautiful!

    And I really love the compost pile in spring. It is so thrilling when the weather turns warmer and all the winter vegetable scraps start to cook. I have a nifty thermometer that inserts into the pile. And I can't believe how happy it makes me when the internal temperature exceeds 100F. (heh, I just read girlonaglide's comment and see that I am being anal to measure the temperature.)

    We have a largish covered plastic bin (from the city) in the back yard. Last year, the local raccoons figured out how to open the bottom door of the compost bin. But my husband is a genius and closed the door by tying an old bicycle inner tube around the composter with the door closed. Works like a charm!

    -Elizabeth

    P.S. vlb5757, as long as you don't put any fat or meat into a covered compost bin, the rats are for the most part uninterested. I can't believe that your city is discouraging you from composting! The amount of garbage that one takes out is reduced dramatically when one composts.

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  15. FG, you need to stop posting about gardening, I'm begging here! I have already thrown out my back with digging a garden that I know I'll never have time to tend and spent way too much money on seed starting kits that I can't run and will probably kill off the seeds if I do get it to work. Now you want me to COMPOST?? s-t-o-p whaaaaa my poor bank account.

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  16. This is a great post, thank you!

    I grew up with composting, though I don't think we ever did it properly. Lately I've been thinking about trying to take it up again. I live in the city but there is a small back yard that is never used (access is only through the basement, down a long, dark corridor). This might be the thing to get me composting again,

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  17. Northern Prairie Woman4/20/2006 3:34 PM

    I love composting - one of my favorite topics/rants. Lived in a 54 unit house coop in Vancouver (Canada) 80s and 90s, and we used 3 3x3x3 square steel bins - olive green with white enamel inside, beautiful, way easy to empty and rat/animal proof. The guy who made them went out of business. If anyone knows of another fabricator, please let me know. Put them on a foot deep bed of gravel which the worms negotiated but not the rats or mice.

    We would harvest great compost in 30 days. In each bin we put in a grocery bag of rotted horse manure which hatched bazillion red wrigglers. We threw everything in - fat, bones, shells, avacado pits. They handled it all. Never had to add more worms.

    The black composters are ugly and lots of ridges for stuff to get caught - not to mention, definitely not rat, mouse, proof.

    Now I live on the prairies (Saskatchewan) with ugly black bins and red wrigglers don't exist here. It gets too cold in the winter they say. So I ordered last year from Ontario. Came in a newspaper bundle in a box via post. Threw them in the just thawed compost bin in mid-April. Great compost resulted. Last fall, I didn't want to figure out how to overwinter them - too lazy. Would rather pay the $40...but maybe next year the cooler in the basement. :P

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  18. Northern Prairie Woman4/20/2006 3:35 PM

    I love composting - one of my favorite topics/rants. Lived in a 54 unit house coop in Vancouver (Canada) 80s and 90s, and we used 3 3x3x3 square steel bins - olive green with white enamel inside, beautiful, way easy to empty and rat/animal proof. The guy who made them went out of business. If anyone knows of another fabricator, please let me know. Put them on a foot deep bed of gravel which the worms negotiated but not the rats or mice.

    We would harvest great compost in 30 days. In each bin we put in a grocery bag of rotted horse manure which hatched bazillion red wrigglers. We threw everything in - fat, bones, shells, avacado pits. They handled it all. Never had to add more worms.

    The black composters are ugly and lots of ridges for stuff to get caught - not to mention, definitely not rat, mouse, proof.

    Now I live on the prairies (Saskatchewan) with ugly black bins and red wrigglers don't exist here. It gets too cold in the winter they say. So I ordered last year from Ontario. Came in a newspaper bundle in a box via post. Threw them in the just thawed compost bin in mid-April. Great compost resulted. Last fall, I didn't want to figure out how to overwinter them - too lazy. Would rather pay the $40...but maybe next year the cooler in the basement. :P

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  19. Fear not city dwellers. It is possible to vermicompost. All you really need it some rubbermaid bins with holes drilled in them and a cool location. And, of course, the worms, which are not the ones you get from the garden.

    I've been vermicomposting for about 6 months now and have enough compost to feed all my houseplants and my vegetable garden. If you're in the Denver area, let me know and I can give you some of my (mail order) worms. They multiply like rabbits.

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  20. Thank you, oh thank you, for this post. I decided that I needed an official compost bin in order to create this compost stuff and have kept adding to it and adding to it and maybe rotating it once in a blue moon. Husband keeps asking me what the deal is with it. My answer? Dunno. This gives me faith that one day, (maybe 800 days from now) it could be actual compost. Sweet!

    ReplyDelete
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