My Evolution of Composting
When I first thought about composting, back in, oh the early 90s, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I didn’t even know how to begin; I only knew that we had lots of oak leaves in our yard every fall that the trash haulers would pick up in giant black plastic trash bags and haul them away to I knew not where. My children were in elementary school back then, and I was a stay-at-home mom/day care provider to my sisters’ kids. One fall day, while walking the four blocks to pick the kids up from school, I came upon an elderly lady who was raking her leaves from her boulevard. I commented, “It never ends, does it?” She smiled and replied, “Oh, you can never have too many leaves”. That reply surprised and puzzled me. I was used to grumping about raking the leaves every fall, not viewing them in a positive light.
So, that nice elderly lady got me to thinking. I’ve always been very pro-recycling and pro-repurposing. I was raised by a mother who told me stories of her childhood at the end of the Great Depression. Grandma would tell my mom, the youngest of 12 kids, “There’s always another use for everything”. It must have stuck with me.
So, when I started to think about composting, I wondered how long it would take, how it was used, what you put into the compost and the like. In the early 90s, we did not have the vast resources of the world wide web, and so off to the library I went, kids in tow. I picked up several books that would hopefully open up the world of composting. I knew I loved to garden, but looking back, I still had a lot to learn there too.
The books showed several ways to build a compost bin, from super simple, like a pile of leaves in a depression in the earth, to three-bin jobbers that held new, cooking, and completed compost. Well, my city lot of 120x40 was probably too small for one of those, but I did wheedle my husband into building a very nice bin from scraps of cedar he had accumulated from a prior project. My compost bin was finished; now – what to fill it with?
The books said to layer the compost with leaves, small sticks for air, a little black dirt, and grass clippings. It also recommended using something to give it a boost; I bought some blood meal and threw that in. I started the compost in the spring, so not as many leaves were available as would have been in the fall. Nonetheless, I was ready! And so I waited. And waited. And waited. Everyday, I would go out to check on my compost. Everyday it looked like a bunch of leaves, grass, and sticks. By the end of summer, the pile was reduced greatly in size, but still looked like leaves. So now I had this small pile of wet leaves that I didn’t know what to do with. Do you pile them on top of the flower beds? Do you have to dig up the flower beds?
I asked my dad, who used compost for his tomato garden. He told me, in the spring as you are readying the beds for the tomatoes, you dig out the dirt, and fill the hole with the leaves, cover the leaves back up with the dirt, and that was it. By next spring, you would not be able to tell there were ever dead leaves in that hole. That was all good and well, but most of my garden was perennials – flowers and raspberry plants, rhubarb, and shrubbery. Most of them were never dug up, unless it was time to divide them.
After a couple of years, I lost interest in trying to figure out how to use my compost (or wet leaves). I would still fill up the compost bin every fall overflowing with dead leaves, and add grass clippings as I mowed the lawn, but I didn’t remove much of it. After a period of a couple of years, I decided to check out what the bottom of that pile contained. I dug down, and finally knew what gardeners were talking about when they referred to “gardener’s black gold.” It was beautiful, dark, moist, humus! I couldn’t believe it – it was like the very best black dirt, and it was free!
My gardening efforts gained momentum as my children were growing up and becoming more self-sufficient. In 1998, my garden won the blooming boulevard contest for our neighborhood. I didn’t even know there was a blooming boulevard contest; someone nominated my garden, and it won! I give some credit to the compost, of course!
Since that time, I have realized that in gardening, as in life, you learn a little something every year. Some of what you learn comes from your failures, but you still learn. The astilbe didn’t do so well in that sunny spot? Move it to a shadier spot and it sings! That tumbling composter that you just had to have? Best not to fill it with grass clippings, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps, and then keep the lid closed in July. You end up with a smelly soup that looks like it came from the gutters in the barn my grandpa used to shovel cow manure from. That composter with the lid? Not very useful, since the vegetation needs moisture to become compost.
I’ve learned coffee grounds make pretty good compost, but not too many grounds. Vegetable scraps and fruit rinds and apple cores also make really good compost. I’ve learned the squirrels really love it when I put banana peels into my compost bin; I find the peels all around the yard. Most people know not to put fats and meat scraps into their compost piles, but it bears repeating. This will attract pests like rodents and raccoons, and as much as they need to eat too, I don’t want them eating in my yard. Same goes for bread and cookies; they don’t belong in your compost.
I’ve learned compost attracts earthworms, which in turns makes for great compost. The worms leave their casings in the compost (their poop) and that helps the compost’s nutritive value, as well as aerating it.
The best discovery I have made with my composting journey is sifting compost. Compost sifters can also be elaborate, such as a tumbling sifter made from a sturdy screen material that sifts great amounts of compost. It can also be as simple as metal fabric that is a heavy gauge placed over a trash barrel or wheelbarrow. Put your finished compost on the screen, and wearing rubber gloves (another lesson learned), rub the compost back and forth. It will break up and fall into the trash barrel or whatever you have placed it over. It sounds like a bit of a bother, but I enjoy it immensely. It is an almost zen-like experience, just you and the compost. It helps you rid your mind of anything cluttering it, like worries, and lists. It is a wonderful time with nature. Although, I do suggest you check yourself for woodticks afterward, if your compost bin is anywhere near woods like mine is now. Also, I try to pick out the earthworms before sifting; it seems like such a cruel fate for the worm to be sifted into pieces after it has done my compost so much good.
The result of your efforts is beautiful, fluffy, dark, dressing for mulching your flower and vegetable beds. It smells like the earth, and I am so delighted when I see my flowers tucked into the beautiful compost that, without my minimal efforts, may have ended up in a county dump site. It is the ultimate in repurposing that provides so many benefits – both for you and your garden. Happy composting!
This article was written on behalf of Yale Creek Seasonal Care by Tamra Adams