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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

The Joy of Composting


by Jim McGinty

With the recent increases in fresh food prices (have you priced a plain old red bell pepper recently?), many so called “authorities” are now recommending we all go dig up our lawns and grow food in the remaining dirt. While I agree with most of what these recent converts to home gardening have to say, I have to wonder if they have ever lifted their pale, clean fingers off their ergonomic keyboards and grabbed an actual shovel handle? I wonder about their food growing experience because, invariably they will say something like: “And in order to increase your yields, you will need LOTS of compost, and composting is fun!” Based on three decades of composting experience, I would amend their giggly, flatout statement to read, “blah, blah, and most of the composting process can be fun!”

In order to verify my villainy, let’s review the steps to successful compost:

Planning.

Collecting.

Doing.

Using.

In Step 1, you do have the joy of mentally locating the compost pile/bin in an appropriately well-drained location, with available water, hand tools, bulk storage room, and on a confirmed pizza delivery route. In this planning stage, the only physical demand on your body will be the use of the “pointer” finger: “We’ll put the pile/bins here, and we’ll wheel the huge, fragrant loads of finished compost to the raised beds over there.”

In Step 2, which is my personal “funnest” step, you go out into the world and collect the food for your compost project: do your neighbors rake, collect, and bag several million maple tree leaves every Autumn? Bonus! The local horse ranch delivers tractor wagons loaded with soiled bedding straw? Score! Be aware that this step can become either trickier or more fun if you are faced with a lack of easily obtained/delivered compostible materials: let’s say your cheap, selfish neighbors use their own leaves for their own garden (unimaginably insensitive!) or the uncooperative, unfriendly horse folk return their own organic matter to their own fields (focused snobbery!).

In this case, we can either despair (never very helpful), or we can adapt by donning our subdued black ninjagardener uniform and “recycling” or “liberating” those big lawn bags of leaves (left unloved, and more importantly, unattended in various yards.)

Another form of adapting might involve convincing your offspring, or unsuspecting neighborhood children, into helping you by having them talk to your potential suppliers (the word “begging” has such harsh overtones). I mean, who can turn away an eager waif dressed (costumed by you?) in the necessary overalls, straw hat, and bare feet? Other examples of adapting: follow the City lawn mower/vacuum-bagger around (unsprayed grass clippings, only!); allow (for a price, of course!) the local dairy farmer to bring you dump truck loads of composted manure and straw; make an offer to the manager of the local “big box store” to haul away his broken bags of seasonal manure and compost (he won’t want customers walking through all that wet (you did remember to bring a small bucket of water along?), yucky stuff!.)

In Step 4, we do indeed have the positive experience of applying our hard-won compost into the garden: a trowel scoop of the heady, rich-smelling “black gold” into each tomato seedling hole, a cup of the earthy organic matter scattered around each broccoli plant, a gallon pail of the fruit of your efforts dumped into a feed sack and used to produce five gallons of precious compost tea.

In Step 3, which I purposely moved to the bottom of the so-called “fun” list, we have the actual physical labor of firstly constructing a compost pile/bin in the location planned in Step 1, secondly loading/piling the materials collected in Step 2, and thirdly mixing/turning/maintaining the composting materials. It is here that I have questions for all those previously mentioned, recently-minted garden “experts”: do they actually have, maintain, and use their own composting system? Do they hire helpers (gardeners, gangly teenagers, convicts on work release) to do the actual “fun” part of the work? Are the writers speaking fromexperience or being paid by the word? I ask these questions because the whole Step 3 process can be, literally, a pain in the back: those big bags of (stealthily obtained?) leaves and lawn clippings don’t load themselves into and out of your muffled, camouflaged pick up truck. Someone will have to shovel/pitch the materials into the pile/bin, and then return each week to “turn” the pile/bin contents to ensure adequate air and moisture – I mean we’re looking for compost here, not sludge!

Done incorrectly (“Lift with the legs, not the back!”), composting payoffs will be negligible, unless you meant all along to support your local emergency rooms, doctors, and chiropractors? What to do, what to do? Many of the aforementioned gardening “experts” recommend involving your/neighbor children, as in “Compost with your children!”. When I first read this suggestion, I thought “Well, this idea will go nowhere, because most kids will take a long time to compost – you’ll need a LOT of nitrogen!”, but then the articles went on to describe instead, how many parents are able to convince their not-so-eager children to “contribute” to the composting process through such efforts as recycling-positive coloring books, posters, school programs, and funny adults dressed in over-stuffed vegetable costumes. Again, a question for these socalled gardening writers occurs: do they actually have children of their own??!! Most of the kids/grandkids/neighbor kids I have known are WAY too smart to fall for this deception (some of those same kids actually know about the whole “Tom Sawyer – painted picket fence” ploy!), and would merely smirk knowingly, and back slowly away.

So the whole physical labor process of Step 3 is, sadly, on our sore, ointmented shoulders. Remember back in Step 1 where I mentioned the necessity of a “confirmed pizza delivery route”? This requirement is important in at least two ways: the obvious importance of delivered- to-the-garden pizza should not be overlooked, and those “thirty minute or else” drivers can be an unrecognized (and cheap!) method of transport to the emergency room. Bottom line: most of the composting process can be fun, and yes, even joyful. It’s that little bit of Step 3 that can sneak up on you – pass the aspirin, please.

Jim is a Spokane County Master Composter, a Pend Oreille County Master Gardener, and has worn out his welcome with gardening suggestions to his children, grandchildren, and ALL the neighborhood children. Ingrates.

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