"Daddy‘s Pile": A Greenhorn‘s Composting Lesson

18 Jul

Daddy's Pile Compost

Helping with Daddy's Pile - a compost lesson.

By Brett G. Varner

For the five years we have lived in our house, I have thought about composting.  Our relatively small yard has 3 large and mature trees:  a fruit producing mulberry, an elm and a California Oak.  All three, combined with the lawns, are very prolific at producing green waste.  It is far more than our green waste bin from the City can handle each week.

Composting seemed like a very good idea, but I didn’t know anything about it.  I always assumed the first step was to learn how to build, and then actually construct, a composting bin system.  Each year, I would look at the piles of leaves in the yard and think, I need to learn how to compost this stuff.  Then Jose, who has a tree trimming service, would show up with his annual offer to manicure the trees, as well as clean up all the leaf material.

Last year, as our budget tightened, I thought about the money we were spending taking care of our yard, especially purchases of soil and fertilizer each year and paying someone to come and clean up all the leaves when it got too much for me.  I began to actually research the process of composting and what would be required to start utilizing our green waste for our home.

I started with the home improvement store Lowe’s (www.lowes.com) and their project website, www.lowescreativeideas.com.  Their site offered an introductory video on composting, as well as, construction plans for building your own compost bin.  I printed out the plans, made a few notes, and thought, “Yes, I can do this.  I just need to find the time to build the bin.”

Well, time passed, and as fall turned to winter the leaves in our yard began to pile up again.  The budget wouldn’t allow us to utilize Jose’s services this year, nor was I thrilled with the idea of hauling all the yard waste myself to the local green waste collection drop-off, One Stop (Redlands, CA).  I had been filling up the green waste bin each week, but it did not seem to even be making a dent in the pile (it seemed like more was being generated than we were removing).  I decided I would just rake all the leaves into one corner of the yard, as much out of sight as possible, until I could decide how to handle it.

A Simple Start to Composting

As I sat there observing the pile of leaves, I began to wonder, do you really need a compost bin in order to start composting?  I thought back to the information I had read.  In order for the microorganisms that cause the decomposition that creates compost to thrive, they need a few basic things:

  • An environment to live it (i.e. compost heap)
  • Fuel to consume (a reasonable mixture of brown and green waste, i.e. brown leaves and green grass clippings)
  • Oxygen
  • Moisture

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a few benefits a compost system would provide.  Obviously, a system would help contain the material, possibly help simplify aeration, keep any rodents or animals out, and would help manage the compost through the process.  However, I couldn’t think of a reason as to why a bin would be a required element of the process.

I decided that you just never know until you try and I had nothing to lose.  It would be a while before I would be able to do anything with the mound of material anyway, so why not see if I could get it to begin composting.

Daddy's Pile

Daddy's Pile

The Compost Mix: Creating Balance

The existing pile was almost entirely dry leaves.  I realized that this wasn’t sufficient fuel to get the microorganisms going because you need a good mixture of dry (brown) and fresh (green) material, but I was just about to mow the lawns.  The clippings would be considered good green material.  Once the clippings were mixed in, I figured I had decent start.  Then I added water, until all the material was moist, but not saturated.  Both my wife and 2 ½ year son looked at me like I was crazy as I stood there “watering” my pile.  From that day forward, my son has referred to the compost heap as, “Daddy’s Pile.”

We began to add our food green waste to the pile (including fruit and vegetable scraps and well-rinsed egg shells), which helped to increase the amount of green material in the mixture.  Each week, I have added water to the pile and turned it.  Obviously, the water helps maintain an appropriate moisture level, and turning the material mixes in oxygen (a process called aeration).  I have been able to contain the pile to the corner of the yard was relegated to, and so far, the only pests I seen in it is our little Chihuahua/Miniature Pincher mix (and I can handle her).

Signs of Composting Success

After a few weeks, it appeared that the material was starting to breakdown, but I wasn’t clear on what to look for.  A quick Google search led to a wide variety of sites, but I found two sites that provided sufficient, clear and straightforward answers, as well as links to other useful sites.  In addition to the basics I found at Lowe’s, HowToCompost.org (www.howtocompost.org), and Vegweb.com (www.vegweb.com/composting/how-to.shtml), provided information to help me move forward.  The two main signs to watch for were the visual decomposition of the material, and the temperature of the interior of the pile.

I have been managing Daddy’s Pile for a while now, and recently, as I was aerating the material, I discovered a wonderful fact.  The interior of the material had gotten very warm.  From my study, I knew that this was being generated by the activity of billions of microorganisms generating heat as they were decomposing the material.  Also, as I turned deeper into the mixture, I found the material towards the bottom was much more decomposed than the upper portions.

We are now nearing our first production of finished compost.  Assuming we can keep this going, I’m confident that we can generate enough compost for all our gardening needs (maybe even provide some for family and friends).  In addition to feeling good about our green approach to using this waste, I expect the production will save us several hundred dollars a year in soil and soil amendments, and another several hundred in cleanup and hauling costs.  My wife and son don’t think I’m so crazy any more, and I’m pretty darn proud of Daddy’s Pile.

The Composting Lesson for Life

Daddy's Pile

Adding organic waste to Daddy's "Pile"

The lesson in all this is that it is easy to get caught up spending too much time thinking about something, researching how to do it, or creating a plan, without actually doing anything.  Sometimes the most important thing you can do is find a starting point.  I’m pretty sure that we will build a compost bin next year, as I do think it will help.  In the meantime, by just finding a starting point, I have gained hands-on experience on what to expect and what happens during the process.  The research gave me the foundation, but I have learned volumes by going through the process on my own.

Are you ready to try something new?  Go ahead, get your feet wet, get your hands dirty.  Worse case, you’ll learn something new.  Best case, the results will surprise and inspire you.

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