The recent combination of rain and sunshine has put my garden into overdrive. We’ve been weeding and trimming and pruning and mowing, just to keep up with the growth. Frankly, the weekly green bin picked up by Recology hasn’t been enough to handle even an eighth of our yard, let alone the whole lot.
The situation has got me thinking a lot about composting. I love the idea of returning my kitchen waste and yard trimmings to the soil. Unfortunately, I’ve been going about it all wrong.
For years, I’ve had three standard compost bins (you know, the kind that are given away as promotions for county wide programs) that I’ve routinely tossed my leftover kitchen veggies into. I even knew that I had to alternate between “green” material and “brown” material to provide a mix of material that works better for composting. Yet, while my compost eventually rots and breaks down into a small pile of rich dirt in the bottom of the bin, it never actually produces the kind of rich compost that I’ve seen in other gardens or at nurseries.
My first stop in my search for a better system was online; the Sierra Club has a simple video primer about composting which gave me a basic understanding of composting science. The video promotes the use of a compost tumbler, which I prefer to go without for now, but it did teach me that my proportions of the “brown” carbon material and the “green” nitrogen material were way off. In order to get the ratio right, I need to add a lot more carbon to my compost.
However, my yard doesn’t have a lot of “brown” material to offer. I’ve got a couple of leafing bushes that I can collect the leaves from, dried fallen leaves from the Monterey cypress and newspapers to create carbon from. The problem is, that the Monterey cypress leaves are fairly acidic and the newspapers provide bulk carbon, but not a lot of nutrition. So, I’ll have to find a lot more carbon for my compost, not always easy in Pacifica, where we have a lot of evergreen vegetation.
So, my next stop was the East Bay, to ask the advice of our friends and gardening mentors, Dr. Luz Calvo and Dr. Catriona Esquibel, how they create their gardener’s gold. Dr. Calvo mentioned that she’s faced similar challenges getting compost to take, that is, until she introduced chicken and rabbit manure to the mix. Apparently, this greatly encourages microbial activity and elevates the temperature of the compost. The bedding used to house chickens, ducks or rabbits is especially useful since the bedding (usually straw or pine chips) provides the carbon and comes “pre-mixed” with the animal droppings. In addition, she mentioned that she’s had to go carbon hunting in her neighborhood to collect enough material to amend her compost with the correct ratio of carbon and nitrogen for a quality soil.
The conversation quickly evolved to a discussion about the myriad benefits of poly-culture, the interrelationship of farm animals and gardens, and worm bin maintenance. I left their garden with a new purpose: find more carbon.
So, in summary, here’s what I’ve learned thus far about composting in Pacifica:
- In order to make the compost “hot” enough, you’ll need a lot of dry brown material to add to your kitchen waste for a quality product.
- Livestock bedding and manure greatly increases your composts productivity
- Keep your compost pile in the sunniest location you have available
- If composting in bins, you’ll need several that you can rotate until the compost soil can be harvested. Dr. Calvo recommends that you have one bin that you “feed” and one that you let “rest”. The compost needs time to “rebuild” as soil after it spends time breaking down.
- Compost in Pacifica needs shelter, since the fog and rain tend to make the compost rot, rather than break down into soil. Compost needs to be damp, not wet.
The benefits of composting are incredible, and with a little effort, you too can turn your trash into Gardener’s Gold.