The Almighty Compost

23 03 2011

I’ve given a brief history of our yard and what we’ve done; haven’t even touched yet on what we want to do (maybe around the weekend I’ll get to that; the plans are GLORIOUS!).

But I want to touch on a subject near and dear to my outdoor ticker; rotting food.

Before moving to this place, my experience with compost was limited to a big pile of wet grass that stank and nothing happened to it for over a year.  Compost piles like that give good compost a bad name.

Composting is the process of taking organic waste (mostly kitchen and garden), and using it to feed bacteria and bugs that turn it into a fantastic soil amendment.  Practically, you can take most kitchen waste (except meat, grains, dairy and citrus), and huck it on a big pile outside.  That’s “how I compost” over the winter.  In the summer is when the good work happens.

To avoid a smelly compost pile, there are really only two things to watch for:

1) Making sure you have a balance (and I use that term a bit loosely) of ingredients

and

2) Ensuring there is sufficient water and air getting in.

Ingredients are commonly called “greens” and “browns”.  I think of it as “fresh, wet and green” and “dry, old, brown”.  Greens are anything green that’s been recently cut, used, consumed; things that still have moisture in them (like lawn clippings, or ANYTHING from the kitchen).  Greens contribute “nitrogen”.  Browns are things that are usually dry and old.  These contribute “Carbon” to the pile.  Books will call for certain ratios of green to brown (eg:1:7 or something like that). I want to point out that I’m being fairly  general because, in my experience, being general was sufficient to get the job done.

In my experience, these are VERY loose rules. I did not accomplish NEARLY that ratio, always being somewhat short of browns.  I also had a tendency to let my compost pile dry out a bit.  My compost pile was very forgiving though.  When these things happened, it slowed down production and needed to get jump started again with the right amount of water and a good turning over with a fork.

Rarely was there any real odour.

I’m lucky that my brother in law has a BIG yard.  Near the beginning of the season, I ask for the bags of dry grass that got raked off his lawn (and then take mine too).  This ads a GREAT blast of browns that our kitchen greens can work with from other the winter.  Between that,and biweekly turning, it doesn’t take too long to start seeing some good product in the compost in the spring.

If you experience an odour in your compost pile and you’ve been putting freshly cut grass ON the pile, STOP!  Spread out the fresh cut grass somewhere where you might let it dry out for a while.  AFter some of it dried out, put it back on the pile with some water and turn it a LOT.  THAT, or add some more browns (hamster shavings, straw, shredded papers that are not too ink heavy).

There are GREAT books on composting that can be read.  Or even a short trip to the library and a 5 minute read of the “trouble shooting” section of one of those books is all you’d need to learn how to solve the problem.  Your local library is where I got all my books (and Stan Mil.).  I plan to set up a library list on my own somewhere on this danged whatever it’s called.

Friends of mine have stated they would NEVER compost because it smells so bad.  I did not experience that.  In fact, there were times my compost pile actually smelled good; like a kind of chocolate and fruit mixture.  But, regardless of the lack of an offensive odour, what came out of the compost pile was a WONDER!  Black, crumbly soil balls about 1/2″ across that smelled like rich earth.  It felt as though I was actually putting something USEFUL back into the ground instead of all the crap I toss in my garbage can.

I threw together a sifter frame (picture to come!).  It’s a bit labour intensive and time consuming to take compost, sift it and spread it, but it gives you the feeling that your garden is getting a good thwack of nutrients by doing this.  It’s also a chance to enjoy weather and be active outside.  To sift, give your compost pile a good turn and if you think you have a good amount of material that is ready to be used, I would suggest you let your compost pile dry out a bit.  IF you want to spread some of it out, great.  Drying it out makes it MUCH easier to sift.

Spreading it out over the growing vegetables and trees was a great use of the compost; a living mulch.  A few weeds did manage to come through it but they were easily pulled out.  The rich black stuff gave a very nice aethetic to the place and there was ABSOLUTELY no odour whatsoever.

Compost requires a total of about 3 hours extra work over a season compared to driving to the store and buying compost/manure and that time is broken down into 5 to 10 minute chunks of turning over with a fork and/or walking the compost from the kitchen to the bin.  If you smell the beginning of an alien odour, some quick changes and adaptations solve ANY problem.  Do NOT think that past lack of success with a compost means you “just can’t compost”.  You really, really can.  There are numerous resources to make it easier.

The big question mark with the compost was placement.  We had it on the place where we were going to grow tomatoes the upcoming first summer.  We received 5 tomato plants from a friend that were brilliant and of GREAT quality.  Everything was on course for an intimidating crop of tomatoes.  Until the blossom end rot came at one.  Poor, foolish, slow me.  All five went down in glorious browning and grossness.  Those plants went (sadly too slowly) straight into the trash and not the compost.  I’m still worried about this part of my garden so there will be no nightshades grown there for a few years (nightshades being tomatos, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. [and maybe others but those… I think, for sure).

To make sure I at least get a chance at disease free tomatoes, I’ve bought a couple o them upside planters.  Curious about how those will work.

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