Compost Building Starts Now…Here’s My Plan

I never seem have enough compost to last throughout the growing season. Consequently, the plants in my jam packed, intensely grown, vegetable garden begin to show signs of suffering around the end of July, forcing me to go out the, “big box store,” to buy commercially prepared, organic, soil amendment. I hate that. With all of the natural resources that I have on this ranch, you would think that I would be able to make mountains of steaming compost. The fact of the matter is that I’m not as young as I used to be and trying to physically keep up with the task is getting a just a little harder each year. That’s why it is so important that I get my compost making game plan in order as soon as possible and start now.

Compost - Leaves and chicken litter
Compost – Leaves and chicken litter

This season I’m starting early with my dry leaf collecting. Leaves are a wonderful addition to the compost pile. In the past, I would wait for a day that my husband could help me and we would be able to use the truck. We would go across the road, into the “wilds” and gather a couple of truckloads of leaves and then bring them back to the compost area, near the garden gate. I’m still planning on doing that this year, except I also hope to get out there on my walks to collect leaves, putting them in trash bags for easy carrying back to the garden. This will add a little extra effort to my strolls, but I just consider it part of my physical fitness program. I figure that I throughout the winter months, I can possibly get an extra couple of truckloads worth on my walks alone, plus, I can do it alone, which only adds to my self-sufficiency.

The best ingredient in my compost recipe is the used chicken litter that comes from our chicken coop. I’m definitely going to continue with that. We use wheat straw for our hens, which on its own, doesn’t really contribute many nutrients to the compost, but the manure in the straw really gets the pile going and kickstarts the breakdown of all the other materials.. The problem with the used litter is that it contains uneaten scratch seeds that sprout and overtake my garden just when I am trying to get the young plants to get a good foothold. This could definitely be overcome by keeping the pile good and hot and also by getting an early start on compost making and allowing the seads to break down completely before using the finished product. Another problem with using the chicken litter is that when we run out of our own, natural, organic straw, I have to resort to using straw from the feed store, which isn’t organic.

Good compost doesn’t need just dried, brown material. It also could use lots of green matter which adds nitrogen to the compost and help to speed up the break down of all the other stuff in the pile. For that, I normally use my end-of season plants that are dug up from the garden, such as tomato plants.  I also use grass and weed clippings. (For more ideas on composting materials visit this Mother Earth News article on compost.)  I plan to start early this year, tackling that task of the annual, roadside trimming of the natural, tall grasses that grow here, before I let it grow into harvestable straw. In past years, we have cut later in the spring, when the grass is already several feet tall and use the harvested grass for straw in our chicken coop. Normallly, I like to use a scythe as my cutting tool of choice, but I may have to resort to using the gas-powered, weed eater occasionally, to make the job go a little easier and get more mowings in. We’ll see what my bones and muscles have to say about it.

I’m also considering either buying, or renting a good chipper/shredder. Renting is probably the more economical choice. Besides, I really don’t have a good storage place for a shredder right now. With a rental, I guess that I can build a huge mountain of both green and brown compost materials in one weekend with a big machine helping me. We have a boundless amount of freash leaves and grasses, as well as some coarser materials, such as sunflower stalks, branches, vines, etc., that have yet to break down from last season.

Adding kitchen scraps is also a small contribution to the composting effort. It doesn’t account for much, but it is better than it used to be, since we bought a larger composting pail for the house, making it easier to collect all scraps that aren’t used for other food projects. Our cider-making pomace is our biggest contribution.

With all of this being said, compost still takes time. The breakdown process tends to slow down in the colder, winter months, when it’s too rainy to get out there and turn it frequently. So, this season, I’m going for the plastic, sheet covers. They will help to hold the heat in and the excess moisture out, allowing for easier turning. While black plastic works best to keep things warm and toasty, I have a lot of clear plastic left over from other projects, so that’s probably what I’m going with. The less plastic I have to buy, the better. I also plan to add some high nitrogen to the piles to keep the composting process going full bore. My choice as of right now would be organic, bat guano, although, I’ll need to do some further investigation. I will defintely stear away from any commercially prepared fish, cattle, or chicken products. I also have learned not to take any freebee horse manure that is in great supply in our area, as you never know what kinds of fly sprays, antibiotics, stray seeds, etc. were used. Same goes for the CalTrans roadside trimmings. It always pays to know where your materials originate.

So, where will I put all of this compost anyway? Good question. I have room for a couple of big piles near the garden, but I’ll still need to find more space. Besides making huge mountains of compost, I also plan to add raw materials right in the garden, by building a thick blanket of mulch over the beds. Hopefully this will help to keep the weeds down in the spring. It is also a nice, easy way to get the compost immediately and directly into the soil, without having to worry about falling behind in my composting chores. Of course, that means that I had better get started preparing and cleaning up the garden now. :::sigh::: It looks like I have my winter’s chores and my springtime bounty ahead of me.

Garden on…

~ C