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In the Garden

The joy of compost


I'VE ALWAYS BEEN SOMETHING OF A COMPOST BIN addict. In my life I've had five bins (not counting open compost piles), and there are a few more models I'd still like to try. The satisfaction that comes from turning over a pile of dead leaves and moldy fruit and discovering dark, damp, worm-infested muck underneath -- well, if I have to explain it to you, you probably wouldn't understand anyway. You'll find the rest of this column profoundly dull and you're better off skipping ahead to the movie of hands holding compost

As for the rest of you, I have good news: The third annual Compost Festival will be held at HSU this weekend. Now, you may be thinking that a compost festival is the kind of event where you'd get together with like-minded gardeners and brag about the size of your compost pile and the source of free manure you've found, but oh, no. It is so much more than that. You'll be able to take classes, dance your own little compost jig to the sounds of (you guessed it) the Compost Mountain Boys, and buy yourself an Earth Machine composter or a worm bin -- containing actual live, hungry worms -- at a greatly reduced cost.

Oh, joy. The only better way to spend a Sunday afternoon would be to stay at home and turn your own compost pile, but every now and then you've just got to scrape the dirt out from under your nails and go meet some kindred spirits.

When I talk to people about their compost piles (it's a topic that comes up more often than you might think) I'm always surprised at the widely different approaches that gardeners use to get the same result. Composting is an inexact science, and what works for one gardener may not work for another. Also, I've learned that the state of a person's compost pile can be a fairly reliable predictor of their personality. Some people love to turn a compost pile every day and check its vital signs (temperature, moisture content, pH), while others would rather pile everything in a messy heap in the corner and turn it over once a year to pull out whatever compost has accumulated at the base of the pile.

Fortunately, there's a compost bin -- and method -- to match every temperament. For instance:

The Martha Stewart Method: The primary goal of this method is to make it clear to your neighbors that you are a far superior gardener than they could ever hope to be. To do this correctly, you'll need plenty of space -- it is assumed that you live on a large estate with some sort of service area in the back that can accommodate an enormous compost pile -- and perfect yard waste. By "perfect," I mean that you should always have about three parts carbon -- dried leaves, hay, shredded newspaper -- to one part nitrogen -- grass clippings, manure, kitchen waste. Everything should be cut into small, tidy pieces, watered, and turned regularly. (Depending on the size of the pile, turning it may require some farm equipment. You do have a John Deere, don't you?)

If it's managed properly, your pile will soon begin to give off steam from the heat that is generated as your perfect yard waste decomposes. The goal is to create enough steam to make one of your neighbors call the fire department. This actually happened to Martha, and she was able to spend a very satisfactory afternoon out in the driveway explaining her compost system to her neighbors and the firefighters. Naturally, she took an opportunity to brag about it in the next issue of her magazine. While you can get excellent compost from this method, the bragging rights are what it's really all about.

The Amy Stewart Method: Feed it all to the worms. It's all about the worms. Keep some worms outside the back door for your kitchen scraps, and make sure your compost pile has plenty of worms wriggling around at the bottom of it. Keep the worms happy, and you can't go wrong. I won't go into all the details about worm composting here, but I'll be teaching a free workshop at the Compost Festival, and I'll tell you all about it then.

The Lasagna Method: A book called Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza popularized this method, but it's actually been around for quite a while. Some people call it "sheet composting," but basically it's a lazy person's way to expand the garden without digging. The idea is that in the fall, you pick a spot where you'd like to build a new garden bed for spring. Chop down the weeds, lay down a thick, damp layer of newspaper or cardboard to smother any remaining weeds and grass, and start adding layers of whatever you'd put in a compost pile -- grass clippings, dried leaves, manure, etc. You can make this pile over a foot tall -- even two to three feet tall -- because it will decompose and shrink within a few weeks. Top it with finished compost or a bagged soil amendment, and wait. By spring, the grass clippings and dried leaves will have composted, and you can plant right into the bed.

The Gearhead Method: This method involves using the maximum amount of gear in the creation of your compost. Start out with a chipper/shredder (people keep asking me where I got my electric shredder, so I'll print the info again: McCulloch Motors, 800-521-8559) and chop everything into bits. Then load it into a compost tumbler, a metal drum that you turn daily to get finished compost in just a few weeks. Add some compost accelerator, check the temperature with a soil thermometer daily, and use your pH meter to monitor the acidity. When it's all done, use a screen to sift out the larger chunks and sprinkle the remaining product around your garden like fairy dust. Total up-front cost for the Gearhead Method: around $500.

Whatever your method, be sure to show up at the Compost Festival and brag about it. The festival takes place at HSU's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT) on Sunday, May 4 from 11 to 3. It is sponsored by the HSU Campus Recycling Program, the City of Arcata Environmental Services Department, and the Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health. Earth Machine compost bins and worm bins will be available for $30, thanks to a subsidy provided by the county. Free workshops include a class on thermophilic composting at 11:15, a worm workshop at 12:15, a kids' composting class at 1:15, and a class on HSU waste diversion at 2:15. I'll see you there.


E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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