Turning Compost is Great Stress Management
“I like to turn compost because it doesn’t talk back,” my Dad told me as I approached his mountain of compost that he was turning in his back yard. He was feeding it to a gigantic shaker that he built to sift usable compost from material that needed to spend more time in the pile. Thank goodness I read Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships by John Gray, Ph.D.. Otherwise, I would have been devastated. I drove six hours to visit with my parents, and I really wanted quality time with him.
“O.K,” I said. “Do you have a task for me to do quietly?”
“You see that bed over there,” He asked while pointing to a bed at the other end of his half acre vegetable garden. “Go pull the weeds out of it.”
He wasn’t kidding, but neither was I. I quietly did a series of chores for him, and left him to his quiet turning. He checked his thermometer that he kept in his steaming piles. He turned his piles and sifted finished compost from larger pieces of plant matter that needed further decomposition. Eventually, he had me use some of the completed compost to plant a cover crop of horse beans for the winter. I love doing just about anything for and with my Dad. The completed compost was warm, full of wriggling worms, and had a wonderful earthy smell. It smelled like home and love all rolled up into one. So did the tomatoes, peppers, basil, and other veggies that he grew with the compost.
When Dad had enough quiet time, we went into the house where I would have to compete with a noisy troop of siblings and nieces for his attention. I think we both felt better from the quiet time spent out gardening and composting.
Step One to Creating a Garden, is Starting a Compost Pile
When I moved out on my own, I tried to find a residence where I could garden when ever possible. When I was successful, the first thing I did was start a compost pile. Usually, I used forklift pallets with t-posts driven down the center to create a bin that keeps the decomposing matter piled high. Depth of the pile is important for retaining heat that organisms in the compost need to do their work. I added vegetable scraps such as potato peels, carrot tops, radish tops, onion peels, etc to shredded junk mail and a bit of local soil to start my compost. I tuned it weekly and checked the moisture content. When the compost looked like rich brown soil, I was ready to prepare my first garden and vegetable beds.
Compost Taught Me that Rabbits and Chickens Make Great Pets.
When I lived in more moderate climates, I added a bunny to the mix. Rabbits are great for converting vegetable scraps, sticks, lawn cuttings, etc into high nitrogen fertilizer. Rabbit “pellets” really heat up the pile and improve both the rate of composition and quality of the compost. Early on, my interest in rabbits was purely practical. It wasn’t until a Holland Lop Rabbit adopted me at a local pet store, that I found out that rabbits make great pets. I was there out of boredom more than anything. I tapped my finger in the center of a table of baby bunnies. Cottonball head butted my finger with a very clear “pet here”. Some how she wound up in a cage that made it’s way to the check out counter along with food and a copy of House Rabbit Society Magazine. The rest was history and the plants in my gardens were amazingly robust for the following ten years.
Cotton Ball didn’t make it to my current garden. My room mate insisted that her replacement live outside. He didn’t survive a heatwave, and I realized that until I had time to build an underground hutch, chickens would be more suitable for for the Mojave Desert Climate. Ok, Chickens do a good job of converting vegetable scraps into a great nitrogen source for the compost pile. They love to catch all sorts of “bugs”. They have amazing personalities. Unfortunately, they also have a knack for sneaking into my garden and beating me to my own harvest. Until I can convince my room mate to keep the monsters caged, chickens are better for entertainment that for improving my garden.
Compost Improves Soil Texture and Adds Nutrients to Soil without Burning Plants
In general, desert soil doesn’t have nearly enough organic matter to grow anything but desert plants and rocks. Good luck getting a shovel into the soil more than one or two days after a rain storm. Unless you can afford to spend a lot of money on soil amendments, a compost pile is mission critical. After a few years of adding compost – lots of compost – the addition of decomposed carbon to soil makes it softer and workable. You will actually be able to dig and till the soil without a jack hammer prior to planting veggies and ornamentals. Additionally, water will soak into the ground rather than run off leaving dry soil behind.
Another advantage to compost, is that the organisms that break down the compost help to buffer any source of fertilizer that you add. Too much fertilizer will literally burn your plants. I generally avoid adding fertilizers directly to my plants. I do add it to my compost pile when my critters are behind in producing a “nitrogen source” aka poop. Better to “burn” the compost to completion than risk burning plants with direct application of fertilizer. Microbial action will also convert minerals known as nutrients to ionic forms that plants can absorb into their roots and use. Since optimal use of fertilizer requires a lot of careful expertise, compost is a simple way to avoid “some nutrients are good, more is toxic”.