Sunday, June 24, 2007

Compost for the Garden

This week in my garden I got poison ivy on the outside of my right hand and a bee sting near my thumb. The tomatoes drooped when I forgot to water them. I think they’ve recovered but I regret the stress I put on them. Not much is blooming right now either so I thought I would talk about compost today.

In 2001 when I moved into this house hardly anything was growing, not even the grass. There were a few shrubs and some perennials with potential. The patio had a raised garden bed built into the back side of it but the dirt was packed so hard and dry I could barely dig an inch in it. The former owners had three kids, three dogs and four cats.

We have three large Norway Maple trees so the first fall I decided to use the leaves to start a serious compost pile. I bought some chicken wire fencing and 3’ fence posts and made a 10’ x 5’ rectangular enclosure back by the garden shed. I bought a leaf vac/shredder. The month of November is all about collecting leaves for me. The leaf vac makes is possible for me to get all the leaves shredded and into the pile without overworking myself.

I started collecting coffee grounds, egg shells, and vegetable and fruit peelings. I use a plastic bucket and lid recycled from a laundry soap that holds about a half gallon. It holds a week’s worth of coffee grounds and peelings, which is just about right for me.

I learned from a friend at work about a horse barn nearby that was happy to share manure with gardeners. I bring my old kitty litter buckets by the barn every fall and cart a load home. It makes the car stink a bit but it is worth it. Manure is the best thing you can give your garden. For a while my sister kept rabbits and their droppings are really good too. Often the big coffee shop chains save their coffee grounds and give them away to gardeners. Coffee is another golden ingredient in rich compost.

So I layered the chopped up leaves with all the organic matter and let it heat up. Every week or so I turn it with a pitch fork. If you turn it a lot and have the right balance of dry “brown” (leaves) and wet “green” (manure, kitchen waste) mixed with moisture and air you can get “black gold” in a month or two. I have a hard time getting out there to mix it on a regular schedule what with little kids underfoot and work and all, so mine takes about six months to mature. I spread the resulting mulch on all the gardens either in the spring or fall. It keeps the weeds down, keeps the moisture in and feeds the soil. It is about the best all around thing you can do for your garden. If I had a spreader I would scatter it over the grass too. It is far better than any chemical weed/feed product you can buy.

About a year after I started this I saw an ad in the paper that our state farm extension cooperative was doing free composting workshops in the area. They were giving away free bee hive composters. I got my dad to sign up with me and we both went. We learned about how to compost and all the benefits. We learned about worms and the little micro-organisms that turn the leaves into good rich dark mulch. We brought home our large black dome-shaped plastic composters and were happy campers. A couple of years later he decided he was not going to continue composting so he gave me his dome. Now I have the wire enclosure and two black plastic domes to collect leaves. My trees fill all three in the fall and my gardens love the mulch coming out in the spring or summer.

In the past four years I have been pretty casual about keeping up with it all. Since I have two little ones under five years old I just don’t have the time or energy to play farmer. But even doing it halfway gives me great benefits. Have you done any composting? What tips or strategies can you share?

It’s time for my Sunday Garden Stroll. If you have a post up in the past week or so about your garden please put a link in Mr. Linky below. I’d love to hear what is going on in your garden and yard.


Anonymous said...

I have a compost bin that I fill, but I have not had much luck. I don't turn it enough. I also have plenty of green matter, but brown is harder for me to come by. Here I have many Ponderosa Pines, but few deciduous trees. We get lots of fallen pine needles but I can't use those since they would make it too acidic.

I know what you mean about no time to play farmer with little ones underfoot. One day I will have time to perfect my compost! Until then I have to just settle for buying bags of compost and steer manure at the garden store.

Suzanne said...

We need to get going on the compost again. Thanks for the inspiration.

kerrdelune said...

Ouch, no poison ivy or bee stings here yet, but there are deerflies and horseflies in aundance. I love the bit about composting BTW and almost everything from the kitchen goes into our earth machines here: coffee and tea grinds, vegetable parings and pummelled egge shells - the bin is responsible for some very healthy roses and a fine tomato patch.

Saints and Spinners said...

Sorry about the poison ivy! I have never gotten it, but my mom and brother have suffered from it a number of times (eyes puffed up, etc.). Yucko. As far as compost goes, my mom is BIG into compost. She bought a crate of worms one year, and we all refused to go near the box. Every now and then, the worms would do jail-breaks. Mom was quite attached to her worms and cried when they died.

We inherited a brown-yardwaste bin, but recently ordered a compost cone from the city at a rebate. Now, we have to get all of the junk in the corner hauled away so we can set it up properly. Now that I'm actively gardening, I'm actively interested in compost.