A few weeks ago when I was on Spring Break I took about a day and a half to sort out my compost. I meant to write about this as part of my “Make things that bring you Joy” series of posts. But now, on the last day of April, I’ll tell you about it. I do a “compost day” two or three times a year, usually in spring, late summer, and just before winter sets in.
Composting is at the heart of any successful organic garden. Soil is a network of living organisms, and those organisms need to eat. They need an optimal habitat to live. All of that is provided by compost. I’ve tried many types of composting over the years, and, truthfully, I can say that compost is at the heart of my success as a gardener. Composting is, to me, sort of a sacred ritual blessing the soil and ensuring the fertility of the crops. There. I’ve said it. Composting is the ultimate creative process, the “making something out of nothing” I like to talk about in this blog.
This year I’ve made more fine, finished compost than ever before and for the first time in this property, have not purchased any additional topsoil or seed starting medium or fertilizer. I’ve saved myself well over $100 in compost and fertilizer products. And, this year when I spent a day and a half sifting all that compost and preparing my containers for planting, I experienced the “gardener’s high” referred to in this article. Go read it, it’s fascinating.
The amazing thing is this task should make me very sick. I’m asthmatic and allergic to mold. I usually do breathing treatments, take lots of meds and wear a mask when I’m going to be working with compost. This time I took half the meds and wore one of these and…no reaction. Amazing. Could it be the allergy shots are working? The nose filters? a large quantity of M. vaccae, in my compost? Whatever. I’m happy.
But I digress. Here’s how I make my various kinds of compost. I use many ingredients:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, chopped up
- coffee grounds and filter paper from work. We have a big Starbuck’s machine in the office and they let me take home as many grounds as I want. This stuff is gold in the garden, and I have a huge supply of it. Bonus – it seems to retain the some of the coffee smell in the final compost and that smells, well, great.
- weeds and grass clippings
- shredded paper
- wood chips from the city
- leaves and small branches that I shred up with the lawn mower.
I have several compost zones. Under my tables I store the “brown” compost, leaves and chopped branches, until I’m ready to combine them. In the big black composter by the fence I make a pile of leaves and coffee grounds over the winter, but I plant it full of potatoes in the spring and keep layering more finished compost on as my potatoes grow.
Indoors over the winter I keep redworms in a homemade worm bin using 5 gallon buckets. You can find instructions online to make these with a spigot on the bottom to drain off the liquid for compost tea, but I never got around to adding the spigot and I just dump the bucket in the garden when it gets full enough. The rest of the buckets have worm-sized holes drilled in the bottom, and as I add food and the worms eat their way through the food and bedding, I add a new bucket on top. The kitchen scraps I put in here have to be pretty well chopped up or better yet blended in my Vitamix when possible. By the time the worms reach the top bucket the bottom bucket is close to done, and unfinished compost gets stored in the garage until spring.
I also have a big covered black plastic composter that I won at a Family Farmed event a few years ago. It can really hold a lot. I leave it alone over winter and then in the spring, like magic, there’s black dirt at the bottom. This bin takes the bulk of the food scraps from the garden. It can handle coarser chunks, since it holds a lot and animals can’t get into its sealed lid. For example, I usually toss whole jack-o-lanterns in there after Halloween, and by spring they are pretty close to being dirt.
I usually move my vermicomposting outside in the spring, but this year I expanded my efforts. Truth is, you may hear more about my beehives because that’s a more sexy topic, but I’ve raised far more worms over the past 20 years than I have bees in the last 3. Worms are way easier and cheaper, to be sure. I realized this spring that I have a knack for raising bugs and critters and I might as well embrace that. Instead of one outdoor bin for worms, I put five bins directly across from my beehives, in the shady side up against my neighbor’s garage. This seems to be an ideal place for them and they do really well.
One of the reasons why it took me the better part of two days to set up my composters is because I sifted it all through 1/4″ hardware cloth. I just took a role of hardwarcloth and placed it over my wheelbarrow, and with gloved hands and a shovel, I pushed the compost through the sieve. This resulted in perfect, fine compost that must have had a ton of M. vaccae, because I experienced my “gardener’s high” after sifting compost for a few hours.
In any case, any chunks left over from the sifting process became the bedding for my 5 outdoor worm bins. I took about half of the worms from the indoor bin and populated the outdoor bins. My process is to take my kitchen scraps, mix them with some brown leaves and shredded branches, and fill one worm bin at a time over the course of a month or so. I just filled one worm box and by the time I fill all of them, I’ll sift out the first box and start all over again.
I spend far more time composting than I do weeding, but the soil I’m working with is amazing.