Story last updated at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Labors of composting bear good fruit later

The Kachemak Gardener

Roesmary Fitzpatrick
Last column I mentioned my compost pile. As a result I have gotten untold numbers of phone calls and chats in the grocery store about compost. Therefore, I deem it necessary to write a column on compost.

I have a Garden Way Cart, the kind that has a rectangular bed and bicycle wheels. I consider it unwieldy for day-to-day use, but when it comes to trundling this cart down the street to my neighbor Luana's on grass-cutting day, I am in heaven. It fits the bill perfectly, and I don't know what I would do without it.

Why do I go to Luana's for grass? Because she has more than I do, and she does NOT use any commercial products on it, i.e. fertilizer or weed and feed or whatever it is that people feel compelled to apply to grass. I need unadulterated grass clippings, and she has them in quantity. Plus she mows once a week, on Fridays, a schedule that I can tune into.

So here's the drill: Luana calls, I trundle down to her house and leave an empty cart, then I take the red wheelbarrow, a much more manageable tool, to the end of another street to neighbor Sarah and her daughter Amelia's and visit the area where they collect their horse's droppings, in plastic garbage sacks no less, just waiting for someone, anyone, me to take it away. Gladly. Gleefully. With a song in my heart, because this is all so easy I could almost weep.

So there I am with two crucial ingredients for a compost pile: grass clippings and horse manure (any farm animal manure will do).

John, my non-gardening spouse, built me a compost bin that has three connecting 3-foot-square bins with an open front. Pieces of wood have been cut that will, on a good day, slide in to close up the front by degrees.

This composting bin, at first, scared me. Although it was built to my specifications, it seemed huge, visually dominating the vegetable garden with its sheer mass. This is my second season with this bin and the newness of it has worn off. Built of rough cut, the color has mellowed, and that fact alone has mitigated its mass. Plus, it is so very neat and orderly, two factors that truly appeal to me. And it works.

I have an empty plastic bucket with a lid that, in a former life, held 12 pounds of Peace River honey. This bucket unobtrusively resides under the kitchen sink. This is where I deposit the kitchen scraps all week long. These can include any vegetable matter and fish carcasses generated from day-to-day life. I do not seek any extra kitchen waste material. Enough is enough. In the vegetable plot I have a pile of garden refuse waiting for its role in the compost.

Keep in mind that composting has been happening for centuries. Yes, I am aware there are tomes written on the subject and, no, I have not read them. And I am not going to. Their presence is enough. Read them if you will, but composting is the simplest of gardening functions. And the most logical. A little common sense goes a long way.

Lay the grass clippings down first, about 4 to 6 inches deep, depending on how much you have. Put your kitchen scraps and garden refuse on top of that, layer the manure on top of that, add a shovel of just plain dirt, add another layer of grass clippings.

If you have enough material, keep layering. I can make about three layers before I run out of materials. All of the kitchen scraps went into the first layer.

This is also a good place to put seaweed that you have gathered from the beach. If you are worried about salt, just rinse it off with the hose.

Now, picture the composting bins: facing the bins, from the left you will have bin Nos. 1, 2, 3. You have built your pile in bin 1. In two or three days you will use a spade or whatever works for you, and shovel the composting material from bin 1 to 2. In another three days you will shovel it to bin 3. This will leave bins 1 and 2 empty. This is fine because you are ready to mow again and collect more clippings and start all over again.

So the first pile is in bin 3. The second pile goes into bin 2 and in two or three days you turn it into bin 1, and the first pile goes into bin 2. You will always have one empty bin, so you will have somewhere to turn the compost into.

As you turn the pile, you will be amazed by the heat that has built up inside the pile. It is truly significant and crucial for the pile to decompose. A single red salmon carcass will be gone in three days. Three carcasses will be gone in five. Honest. And there is no ugly smell. To me it smells kind of fruity.

I like to cover the piles with black plastic to hold in the heat and, if it rains, to keep the rain from making a mess of the whole thing. If the grass clippings are dry, like they have been all season so far, water each layer from your hose. I didn't do this the first time and regretted it.

At the end of two weeks, the first pile is finished and gets turned out to wherever you have room. Cover it with a tarp so the rain won't leach out the nutrients.

There are those who will say that compost has no nutritional value, that all it does is improve the texture (tilth) of your soil, which it certainly will do. But I do grow all of my greenhouse plants in straight compost that I have made myself, with the help of my neighbors. These plants are not living on air. Tomatoes, cucumbers and melons are all thriving on compost.

I hope I have removed the mystery of compost making for you. Get out there and get to work! You will be rewarded with gorgeous vegetables, perennials and annuals.

Note: I really need to thank Tom Maloney of Fritz Creek for spurring me on to make usable compost in two weeks. He patiently explained his method to me more than once, and I have successfully put it to practice, you can too.