Compost: Brute Labour of Love

Recently, I spent a weekend spreading an enhanced compost mulch over some of my perennial beds. While I filled the wheelbarrow, spadeful by spadeful, chopped and blended the rough compost, and then spaded it all out again onto the beds, it occurred to me that I was doing brute labour, the kind of thing one associates with medieval peasants.

But it’s worth it.

I can’t imagine gardening without compost. Making and using it is fundamental to the annual cycle of this garden, from gathering spent plant material throughout the summer and fall, to distributing the resulting compost the following spring.

It is true that making and using compost does involve episodes of vigorous work. But that can be said of gardening in general. Only the mildest types of gardening activities — buying pre-potted plants, plunking them on the patio and administering water occasionally (and it’s debatable whether this is really gardening) — are labour-free.

Composting is also burdened with the perception that it’s an esoteric, complicated process, involving strict proportions of materials, added chemicals, and right or wrong ways to put them all together.

I can say from my own experience that it’s really quite a simple process. The one critical element (aside from plant material) is the gardener’s labour.

So here’s how I make compost…

First, I must explain that I do cool, slow compost. It takes a full year to break down to a usable state. Fast, hot compost is a different process, involving (you guessed it) more work and possibly special equipment, such as a rotating compost drum.

I have two heaps, the working heap and the in-process or finished heap. Each one occupies a space about 5 feet (1.5 metres) square. The main inputs are perennial stalks and spent flowers, accumulated through the deadheading process in spring, summer and fall, weeds (of course!) and a huge raft of leaves at the end of the gardening season in October and November. Kitchen waste —  fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells — are a minute contribution throughout the year.

Collecting the stuff — cutting down, raking up and lugging — is just the beginning. I don’t put long, tough stalks into my heaps intact. They break down much better if I chop them up first, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to lay them on top of the pile and whack them with a machete. I have a nice one — nearly a yard long, handle wrapped with copper wire. It’s definitely one of the essential composting tools, along with digging fork and heavy pry bar (whose function I’ll get to shortly).

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

Because my compost piles don’t heat up sufficiently to kill seeds, I try to avoid adding material containing ripe seeds. Three plants that are stalwarts of my garden — lamb’s ears (Stachys betonicifolia), toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) — seed vastly, so I have to make sure I cut them down before the seeds ripen. (Needless to say, I don’t always manage this, which is why they are “stalwarts”).

It’s best to chop up plant material when it’s fresh. Once wilted, it’s harder to cut through. That doesn’t stop me from piling up stuff to be dealt with later — sometimes weeks later. (Perfection, though desirable, is not always achieved). Things get messy all the time in the compost area, as when I cut down all the lamb’s ears, toadflax and campion before they go to seed, creating a backlog of stuff that needs to be processed for the heap.

Once or twice a season I do a big compost heap cleanup, chopping, forking and stacking everything into an organized pile, making sure I incorporate some finished or at least half-baked compost in with the fresh stuff, along with water when needed. A compost pile should be damp, like a squeezed-out sponge, not wet.

One often sees instructions about the proportion of brown and green material, with admonishments to get it right, or a smelly mess will result. I suspect this applies only to those who put lawn clippings in their compost heaps. Large amounts of fresh green stuff (as opposed to material higher in cellulose such as perennial stalks) may result in anaerobic decomposition which does produce slimy, smelly results. Or so I hear, never having experienced this myself. My lawn clippings stay on the lawn, and because said lawn is never fertilized or overwatered, it’s not thick enough for thatch buildup to be a problem. (Sometimes the lazy way is the better way).

Things (aside from ripe seedheads) that I don’t put in my compost heaps: woody material such as twigs or branches, dandelions (which can ripen seeds even after being pulled up), and noxious weeds such as bindweed and creeping bellflower, which can sprout from the smallest root fragments. All this goes to the municipal compost program. There, composting is done on a grand scale, resulting in temperatures high enough to kill weeds and seeds. (Or so one hopes; I never buy any of the stuff myself). Something else I keep out of my heaps — those little plastic stickers on fruit. They never break down and are offensive to see in the garden beds. Not all members of the household bother to peel them off and put them in the garbage, however, so they creep in too. Most annoying.

The pile in the picture above includes all of last fall’s leaves, with a layer of freshly added stuff on top. By now the leaves have packed down solidly and are probably not yet rotted. Oxygen is needed to promote decomposition, so I use the giant pry bar to poke holes into the heap, working the bar right down to the bottom as well as sticking it horizontally and lifting the layers. It’s encouraging when this is fairly easy to do, indicating that breakdown is occurring. It’s even more encouraging when the end of the bar comes out warm or even hot, meaning that some heat is actually being generated. Most often, though, that is not the case.

After the spring mulching process, I like to keep some finished compost handy to add to planting holes or incorporate into soil mixes for pots. But by early fall, it’s pretty much used up. I make a point of moving the working heap into the resulting empty space, anticipating the deluge of leaves that will come in the next few months. The newest stuff ends up on the bottom of the pile, with the old leaves of the previous autumn on top. This gives me a chance to see how things are rotting, adding water to any dry layers and thoroughly aerating everything. Once done, that heap is “locked up,” becoming the in-process pile. Then I start accumulating new material for the next working heap on the other side.

By spring, the finished pile has rotted down, ready for use.

Finished compost

Finished compost

I can still recognize some of the elements — fern stems, the chicken-bony joints of the thickest campion stalks, skeletonized maple leaves — but mostly it’s blackish-brown, crumbly and perfect for mulching. I add alfalfa meal, kelp meal, lime, bone meal and other goodies to give it more nutritional value, blending it all into each wheelbarrow load. For use on potted plants, I screen the compost, throwing the coarse remnants into the current working heap. Screened compost is also perfect as a base for potting soil.

My compost is not perfect. It always contains seeds, despite my efforts to keep them out, so little surprises are always sprouting in my pots and beds — not always a bad thing. I’ve actually potted up some of the volunteers, such as hellebores, for use in the garden.

As for the brute labour aspect, it amounts to four or five days a year of moderately vigorous effort — mulching in spring, heap maintenance and turning in late summer and leaf management in the fall. Each of these is a milestone of the gardening year, the circle from life to death and back again.

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5 comments

  1. At the bottom of my small garden there used to be a shed. It stood there for about twenty-five years and the space around it became a dumping ground for all the waste vegetation that I was ‘going to get round to, someday.’

    I did get round to it about three years ago when I demolished the shed and all that vegetation had rotted down and the soil was like peat! It was almost edible, rich and crumbly and damp, you could plant into it with a cake knife!

    In autumn I rake up an absolute ton of leaves from a mature sycamore and there’s enough litter to cover all the beds. And when I felled the remains of an old willow I spent about two weeks with an axe wittling the trunk down to bags of tree bark mulch, which saved me a fortune. (And left me with a percussion injury in my right arm.)

    The do-it-yourself side of gardening is one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole process and makes me long for my own plot of land where I could live like the Waltons!
    Chris

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    1. All this sounds so familiar to me. Given enough time, anything organic decomposes, and working at it can speed up the process. It’s sort of like that saying: Good, fast, cheap — pick two! Except instead of money, we’re talking about time and effort.

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