Growing up we used to have a dessert which combined dried fruits and sweetened wine that was called “compote.” Being that I had three brothers and a sister with me at the dining table, you can imagine that we quickly renamed it “compost” and I can’t ever think of one without thinking of the other.
Actually a couple of my brothers would probably swear that the “compost” tastes better. (In reality compote tastes pretty good if put on top of lots of vanilla ice cream.)
Once August is upon us, everything that’s getting planted at my house is in the ground and it’s time to spend a little time working on the compost pile to get it back in working order after a year of neglect.
Lots of gardeners try to have a compost pile and most say they have one, but dumping your grass clippings behind the stone wall does not a compost pile make. For starters, I never put grass clippings in the compost pile as they may have pesticides and animal pathogens and with my mulching-mower I have very little left to use.
The goal of a compost pile is to recycle your everyday vegetative wastes to create that rich, dark soil that anything will grow in. Compost is made by combining tiny “microbes” (fungi, bacteria, etc.) with yard and kitchen wastes that you provide for them to eat.
All this digesting gives off heat as a byproduct and if your pile is cool enough, worms, insects, and their relatives will help out the microbes. This combination will slowly make compost out of your yard and kitchen wastes under any conditions, but you can get it to work faster if you help the process along by balancing the food, air and water and mixing the whole mess up a few times.
The mixture needs air, as the best microbes are aerobic. If your pile smells like a wet dog shaking behind a transfer station, you’ve probably got anaerobic microbes at work (they don’t need air). They work a little slower but will get the job done.
The second important ingredient is water, but too much water is not a good thing. The microbes use the water to grow and spread through the mass, so you need to have it about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.
For food, use kitchen wastes (also called “green” stuff) and garden wastes (also called “brown” stuff).
For the green stuff, any waste vegetables or fruits, peels or seeds go onto the pile. Eggshells and coffee grounds, including the paper filters are great for the earthworms. Stale cereal, breads and cooking grains are also great, but they have to be wet with water first before dumping into the pile.
For the brown stuff, any clippings, deadheads, and other cast-offs from the garden goes straight into the pile. I usually throw in some dried leaves but only after running them through the chipper/shredder so they don’t mat down into a slimy mess and remove all the air.
Animal products, bones or fats do not ever go in the pile, as they tend to take a really long time to decompose and they also attract varmints which we’d rather not encourage.
A few tips when you’re starting the pile for the first time:
- Mix in some good garden soil as a “starter” with the microbes in it to begin the process (don’t use potting soil as it’s been sterilized).
- An ideal size is about 9 cubic feet (1 cubic yard) as a good pile requires enough mass to generate the heat required for good digestion.
- Add 2 cups of high-nitrogen fertilizer and 1 cup of lime in the spring to kick it up a notch.
- Don’t put waste from “spite” plants or really vigorous plants into the pile, they may root before they decompose and take over your compost pile.
You can purchase designer compost systems of rotating tubs and although I’ve never used one I’ve been told they work very well. My pile is made of some old metal posts and 3-foot high chicken wire in a 3-foot diameter circle, and works very well.
The secret is to turn the pile ideally once a week or at least once every month. With the rotating tubs you just give them a few cranks and you’re done. With my system I take a pitchfork and dig into the pile and turn it over until it looks right. My pile usually settles and needs more brown stuff, so I always coordinate the turning of the pile with pruning and weeding chores.
Although there are no hard and fast rules your compost is ready to use when it looks and smells like dark brown dirt that crumbles through your fingers.
Some garden trivia for today
- From The Garden Diary and Country Home Guide published in 1908: "An old rule is to plant sweet corn in the spring when the leaves of the white oak tree are as large as a mouse's ear or when the soil feels warm to your bare bottom." (Just make sure the neighbors aren't watching if you try this!)
- During the 17th century, the radish was used for a variety of "so called" medicinal purposes. It was used as a general antidote for poisoning, a cure for snake bites, to alleviate the pain of child birth and to remove freckles. When mashed, and then mixed with honey and dried sheep's blood, it was reported to cure baldness.
- The herb Valerian was used during World War I and World War II to treat shell shock and nervous stress.
- While pumpkins and winter squash have been popular in the United States since the time of the Pilgrims, the most common squash grown today has only been popular in the United States for the last 60 years. The zucchini was introduced to this country in the 1950s by the Italians and is now grown by more gardeners than any other squash.
- In the 1970's, more than 70 percent of the corn acreage grown in the U.S.A. was planted with just six varieties of corn. When a new strain of southern leaf blight fungus appeared that year, corn fields across the country were wiped out. Such are the dangers of specialization, when it comes to agriculture.