Monday, January 25, 2010

Neither Rain Nor Sleet . . . .

It's been raining hard for what seems like forever. Last week we had storms, one after another, with brief respites in between. Now a steady, cold rain is coming down.

But if the compost buckets on the counter by the sink are full, the compost chores must be attended to. This is where I start to feel like a farmer, not a recreational gardener! It's time to suit up and head out -- rain or no rain -- on my appointed rounds, carrying the clanging metal buckets full of gloppy earth offerings. The compost bins are underwired to keep out rodents, so I dump everything in without guilt: moldy cheese and spoiled oatmeal are just as welcome as the usual egg shells, coffee grounds, and produce scraps. A meatless lifestyle makes it easier too.

The secret is to have lots and lots of dry matter on hand to cover up the slimy stuff. Thus, the leaf pile is an essential component of our compost system. "Dry" means "high carbon" rather than "not wet" -- the leaves, too, are a soggy mess right now.

A compost pile should have alternating layers of High Carbon materials (leaves, straw, peat moss, ripped up newspaper, etc.) and High Nitrogen materials (kitchen scraps, green garden waste). As far as I can deduce, it seems to be a contrast between things that are still juicy and things that are dessicated.

The leaf pile represents an ongoing process of begging leaves from neighbors, because our yard lacks the type of deciduous trees, such as maples, that yield a rich supply of sweet compostable stuff. We have redwood (too acid), live oak (too much tannin) and black locust, two tall trees, which, for most of the year, rain tiny leaves that disappear into the grass and never accumulate enough to be raked into piles.

So far, four people on our street have made contributions to the leaf pile. I have a regular arrangement with one friend. She gives me leaves and I give her various items from the garden that she favors: basil, cilantro, Bionda di Lyon extra-tender chard. Most people seem pleased when you offer to rake up their leaves and take them away. The only downside is when the neighborhood leaf dealers get addicted themselves and want to save leaves for their own compost piles!

The kitchen scraps go into the bin that is currently being filled. I use a trowel to spread them around into a thin layer and then cover them (at a ratio of about 30 to 1) with a thick layer of leaves. To be honest, I'm not too precise about the mixture and don't try to create a hot pile, which requires a good balance of carbon and nitrogen, proper moisture, and periodic turning of the pile. My crude approach is easier on an aging body, even if it takes a lot longer.

It's important to note that this method is pretty much odor free. I don't know why. Maybe the masses of leaves just absorb the smell. When the bin is full -- which takes several months -- the pile of organic materials just sits until it starts to look like something a reasonable person would want to dig into the garden.

UPDATE: January 22, 2011
Now I know why the compost doesn't smell. It's because of the magical black soldier fly larvae that gorge on the kitchen scraps, chewing their way through them so fast that there is no time for the bad-smelling bacteria to build up.

Pictured above is the bottom layer of the second, not-currently-being-filled bin. What magic! Yucky garbage and pesky leaves have become fragrant humus, just by sitting there. Last fall, I dug out the marvelous stuff and put it on the beds not being used for winter crops. This is what's left. These bins from Smith and Hawken come in three sections that are easy to stack and unstack, which makes both the filling process and the digging-out process easier.

This wheelbarrow load of compost didn't make it into the garden before the storms hit last week. But maybe it will work as compost tea. . . .

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