A few years ago my husband Oliver read a book about composting which has forever changed the landscape of our yard. I grew up with a father who, after having read the same book, began to compost on a scale that rivals our municipality’s mammoth piles of smoldering organic matter at the local dump. While I do admit to some slight exaggeration, Dad claimed a parcel of land for his composting pursuits that equaled the size of what most people in suburbia call a backyard.
For most of us, the notion of compost involves a Black Earth Machine (or some other black barrel) into which we deposit our kitchen scraps and hope for the best. For years we “composted” in this way and really only harvested a few shovels full of compost each year (if we even harvested any compost at all).
After reading the aforementioned book (which I would recommend here if it weren’t German and probably out of print) Oliver built a simple 3’ x 9’ wooden enclosure that resembles a small animal pen of sorts. The walls are three feet high with no lid. One of the long sides of the enclosure is made of horizontal planks which can be removed when the compost is ready to be harvested in the Spring.
Oliver has a compost “recipe” which includes leaf mold from last year’s raking effort, kitchen scraps from our Black Earth Machine (where animals can’t access it), assorted yard waste, agricultural lime, and blood and bone meal (available at garden and home centers). After harvesting the previous year’s batch by shoveling it through a chicken wire sieve into a wheel barrow, he puts together his organic trifle, covers it with come clay (if available) and dried ornamental grasses (a remnant from our “winter-scape”) and lets it sit for a year. Because we do not include meat or dairy products and all the fresh kitchen scraps are safe in the Black Earth Machine, we do not deal with rodents or a stench of any kind.
This year we turned a section of lawn into a new corn patch and added large amounts of Oliver’s compost to the soil before planting the corn. The corn patch, incidentally, belongs to the kids. I’ve found it to be more fun for kids to watch corn grow than carrots, for instance, since the rate of growth is unbelievable, and there’s a real sense of satisfaction for them. Each day we headed out to our little patch (no bigger than 36 sq. ft. or so) to see whether that corn had germinated. After about 14 days we rejoiced to see little green spikes sticking out of the soil. Success!
After a few days we weren’t just watching corn grow anymore. Other than oodles of crab grass (which Mommy ended up weeding, of course), what came up out of our “compost garden” were around 10 little squash plants, 3 or 4 melons (we suspect) and about 80 tomato plants. Squash is a great companion plant with corn since it grows along the ground among the stalks, shading the roots and helping with moisture retention. The melons we’ve allowed to stay as well, just to see what will happen. But what about the tomatoes?!?!? Why did I ever buy transplants?
I decided that it was criminal to pull them out as weeds, so after letting
them establish I offered them on freecyle.org, a group that lives by the motto that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I’ve been able to adopt my little tomatoes out to several new homes, although by now they’re getting to be so big that I probably won’t be able to transplant all of them anymore. So, despite the fact that corn and tomatoes aren’t the best companions (they are susceptible to the same worm) we will live and let live in the compost garden, and see what happens!
Composting has truly changed the landscape of our yard. It’s not so much the heap, which I had dreaded would be an eye-sore in the beauty of our green space. As it is, the heap is obscured in front by corn and on top by a few squash plants spilling over the edge (another uninvited yet welcome garden guest). Looking around at what’s growing in our garden, most of what we see has to be attributed to the silent workings of the compost with its nutrients and microorganisms. I think there is a beautiful broader illustration here of how even the yucky things in our lives, in the hands of a capable Gardener, can become something outstanding and fruitful.