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Three Composting Techniques for Soil Improvement

Black compost bin

The familiar compost bins. If you look very carefully you might see the hole in the ground by the back bin – where a rat entered the bin

At our house we make use of three different composting techniques. We have two black bins for kitchen scraps and weeds, wire bins for leaves, and a compost pile for weeds and pruning trimmings. These three ways of making compost provide different ways of improving our soil.

Most of us are familiar with the black compost bins. I take a pot of vegetable scraps out every day. However it takes more than just those scraps and weeds. It is important to mix these, sometimes called ‘greens,’ with ‘browns’ which can be leaves, torn paper, coffee grounds and such. I even add a bit of soil once in while which aids the process. This mixture will provide the three essential elements of fertilizers, nitrogen, for leaf and stem development, phosphorus for roots and flowers, and fruit development, and potassium promotes healthy roots systems and helps the plants resist disease.

The mixtures in our bins also need to be aerated to help the composting process. I try to stir it up from time to time with a spade or heavy stick, but you can buy a metal aerator. The aerator plunges in and stirs up the mixings to get air. Aerating and mixing make the decomposition work more quickly.

There are a lot of scraps that go into the bin, and there are many things that should never go into the bin. Never throw in scraps of meat, dairy products, cat litter, doggie doings, or peelings of oranges and such. Don’t throw in diseased plants or strong perennial weeds like dandelions or thistle, or any plants with seed heads.

The thing that just amazes me about the compost that we harvest from the black bin is all the worms living in there. Our bin is a little mucky because I am not good at gauging how much moisture to provide, but the worms are really happy. I take batches of compost and worms and add them to my planting beds. That makes me and the worms very happy.

A final warning about the black bins. We have had rats visiting us this year. They dig under the bin, chewing through the heavy plastic. I assume they spit out the plastic, and then feast on the best of the scraps. Our solution is to put hardware cloth underneath the bin. We can do that now because we are just finishing all the compost. Our second bin will have to wait to be emptied and then get its hardware cloth barrier.

Leaf bin making leaf mold

One of two wire bins for leaves

In addition we have two homemade wire bins, about four feet by five feet. We fill these bins with leaves in the fall. Leaves start to break down somewhat right away which means we can keep adding leaves all season. We aerate the leaves by poking a stick into the leaves in various places on the sides.

These leaf bins make what the British call leaf mold. The value of leaf mold is that it will hold up to 500 percent of its own weight in water. This helps reduce evaporation, and can absorb rainwater and reduce runoff. Leaf mold also improves soil texture. I spread leaf mold on top of the soil sometimes, and sometimes I dig it in when I am adding plants, or loosing soil when doing heavy weeding. It is also useful for lightening the soil when you are planting in containers. I am not exacting or precise; I just do what I can with what I have and hope Mother Nature is kind.

My husband and my son will often mow over leaf piles in the fall, before throwing them in the bins. Some people also use an electric leaf shredder, but I always think they must take a lot of time to go through a big pile. It is an option, and will make the leaves decompose rapidly.

Our third technique is our compost pile. It requires a little more patience, but the result is wonderful.

When we bought our house in 2015 and started planting in the empty back yard we were always digging up weeds and sod, leaves that couldn’t fit in our bins, and finding sticks and branches that fell from the trees. We threw all this stuff in a back corner. It made quite a pile.

In the spring of 2018 we started mining the decomposed materials of this first pile. We had to pull the sticks and heavier branches off the top of the pile and threw them into the beginnings of Pile 2. We took the usable compost and spread it, and incorporated it into our soil.

Finished compost

Finished compost from Pile 2.

Now in 2020 we are mining Pile 2. I am slowly peeling off  the brush that covers  the top of  the pile and then I dig in  to the lovely compost. We are always adding new plants, and these new plants get a good helping of compost. Since we are mining Pile 2 we are also creating the beginnings of Pile 3.  I can tell you it is growing quickly.

I call our garden a strolling garden. There are grass paths, winding around shrubs, trees and perennials, but there is no lawn. Weeds, prunings and leaves from all those plantings go into what we call the compost pile. I need never fear running out of compost.

I am glad to claim these three techniques because our garden space in not only wet, it is very dense and clay-like. A neighbor told me that our street is on the edge of the historic Pray Brickworks. I am doing my best to change that clay.###

Between the Rows  June 13, 2020