If you're at all like me, gardening is a warm-weather activity that brings you great satisfaction. I am always looking for ways to improve my vegetable garden's output, but I'm not willing to kill myself over it. I use bagged manure for fertilizer, and that's kind of the end of it.
I've been thinking it might be time to start a compost pile for a couple of reasons. First, to help my garden grow, but also as a useful waste-reducer. I will admit, though, I've always been a bit scared of the smell and of pests.
To alleviate my fears and help me get started, I spent some time talking with Leah Retherford, an Americorps member working with the Greening of Detroit in their education and urban farming programs. She maintains compost piles in her backyard and one at the lower Cass Corridor community garden for which she volunteers, and she teaches students at Our Lady of Guadalupe Middle School for Girls in Southwest Detroit about gardening and ecology. I figured, if she can teach junior high kids, she'll be able to break down (no pun intended) the compost concept to me.
What it all comes down to, Retherford says, is recycling and replenishing. "For me, it started as a way to recycle. But now it is more. If you don't build your soil, you are just depleting it.
A basic, and the least labor-intensive, method is a passive pile. Retherford recommends first picking a good spot in your yard—she chose a rear corner. Stake in some wooden posts and wrap them in chicken wire to create a fence to keep the pile contained and relatively pest-free. Put yard waste like grass clipping, leaves and weeds into the pile along with kitchen waste like coffee grounds, peels and cuttings from vegetables and fruits and even tea bags.
Avoid meat, fish, cheese, bones and anything greasy or cooked. This draws the pests. In urban areas, Retherford advises an additional caution again pests: always covering any food product with a layer of yard waste, just to be safe.
With a passive pile, all you do is wait—and your compost will be ready in about one year.
An active pile can be ready in six-eight weeks, but they take more thought and effort. You start it just the same as a passive one, but sprinkle water on the pile every foot or so. After a few days, the pile will begin to get hot. After it cools down in a week or two, you mix everything up, encouraging it to warm up again. When it no longer heats up after mixing, the compost is ready.
Many gardeners have turned to composting machines to do the mixing for them. Retherford says the machines make it a lot easier to do the mixing that active compost piles require. Plus, there is the added bonus of keeping the compost completely unreachable to pests.
Currently, Greening of Detroit has a limited number of Earth Machine composters available for $35, a discounted rate from the normal retail price of about $85. Anyone interested in purchasing an Earth Machine should contact Ashley Atkinson at 313.237.8736.
Rubbermaid also makes a composting machine that is typically available at Home Depot and Ace Hardware stores. Composters.com carries dozens of brands and styles of compost bins, machines and accessories.
Because there are many things one can do to improve their compost, there are tons of tricks and tips on what to add and what not to add, when to add a particular ingredient, how to best mix the pile, and so on. Detroit's Garden Resource Program offers opportunities for serious gardeners to fine-tune their composting techniques. On July 26, there is a "Cover Crops and Organic Fertilizers" course that will discuss composting and on September 27, there will be a program on advanced composting. Greening's Compost Workgroup also hosts meetings quarterly. Course schedules and descriptions are available from the GRP website.
Once she has good compost, Rutherford adds it to her garden prior to the first planting of the season. "I put a layer on top of the dirt, break it up a little bit, then just plant right into it." The only time she puts more into her garden is if she is doing a succession planting—planting a second crop after an early one is harvested—or if a crop looks "dried out."
Sounds pretty easy. I just ordered my Earth Machine.
Source: Leah Retherford, Greening of Detroit
Writer: Kelli B. Kavanaugh