Compost Update

This current batch of compost is going to be the most citrus heavy ever. Between George and us we have juiced loads of grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines with all the rinds making it to the compost pile. Usually it’s more evenly distributed over time but with that cold stretch, we picked all the trees clean. It’s also heavily loaded with wood ash from George’s fireplace. He’s gone through record amounts of firewood so far and the season really isn’t half over yet. Also during this compost construct, I’ve picked loads of cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli which leads to lots of big green leaves and stems – a heavy nitrogen load. It’s all this green, moist material that cooks the brown, carbon loaded material – the branches, leaves, and palmetto fronds. The compost purists try to keep an exact ratio of brown to green. I do too – whatever is available goes in. I need monster piles and just can’t be too choosey.

Right now I have a pile which is still building and a mature, ready for use pile. Within the next couple of weeks I’ll load the mature compost into the garden and use that location for a brand new start – new material goes into that one. At the same time I shut down the pile I’ve been loading and work it to maturity. That pile is maybe 4 cubic yards, partially decomposed. Working it means taking a pitchfork and turning it every few days. There’s one school of thought that is even looser than me – don’t work it at all, just let it sit for 6-8 months. If you wait long enough, it decomposes just as if it had been worked daily. With the cold mornings we’re having it’s quite easy to tell that the pile is cooking. Even with an outside temp in the mid 40’s, the center of the pile is hot to the touch and steam pours off when I turn it over. Some compost purists actually keep a thermometer in the pile and adjust the mix to have just the right cooking temp. If I see steam, I know it’s cooking. It will take, perhaps, 3 months for this to cook to garden ready. If you do the math, I put roughly 4 piles a year back into the garden – maybe 8-10 cubic yards total – and it’s really starting to show in terms of the quality of the garden soil.

One thing I don’t do with the compost is strain it. Most gardeners run the compost through a screen to eliminate the larger pieces. I don’t do that by design. My theory is that the bigger pieces aerate the soil and continue to break down over a long period of time. A month or so back I was watching a garden show on the tube and a master gardener was showing the host how to make a compost pile and then use it. The host is also a gardener and jumped back when the guest started putting the compost into the garden without sifting it. That caught my attention and I was just hoping the guy would defend my approach and not say I was doing it totally wrong. He put the host in place by saying that eliminating the straining was not only ok but actually, in his opinion, preferred.

I crack up when I read about people taking their kitchen waste and keeping it in a little bucket to create compost. Of course all of our vegetable based kitchen waste goes into the compost pile but if you compare that amount to the total material in the pile, it’s miniscule. I would have to guess that a years worth of kitchen waste would generate a couple of shovel loads of finished compost. If you had a nice rose bush, that would probably keep it blooming. I guess if you started with basically good soil, that amount would be useable but for a garden big enough to feed you, it would be totally lost.

Three years ago our soil was purely sand but now it’s taking on a rich, organic texture so if I ever get the critters under control, we should really get some great veggie production. At least I will have lost soil quality as an excuse for failure. I can already see it with the current carrot crop. Year one was a total loss; year two was a bit better – maybe half the carrots made it but were grotesquely shaped; this year, classic, picture taking carrots. Exact same seed pack, just new soil. The other fact is that garden level is raising so it drains better and presents much deeper soil for root growth. That should help it survive the rainy season. So all in all, the compost is making a big difference and I know I’m on the right track.

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