On Compost, Covercrops and Soil

Composting is a bit like garden alchemy, you take a bunch of your “junk” and “waste”, you throw it into a pile out in the yard and, eventually, with the help of time and some tiny biological helpers you end up with a rich, sweet heap of “black gold”. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we have yet to find a way to generate enough of this black gold to meet our needs and inevitably, we have always had to import in at least one pick-up load of compost each spring.

In the spirit of creating a balanced more sustainable soil I have been researching ways to reduce or eliminate the need for this outside input. This year we have included so called “green manures” or cover crops into the mix, these green manures are intended to provide additional organic matter, naturally boost nitrogen levels, and improve soil structure. The plants that we are experimenting with are Hairy Vetch (available in bulk from a local seed supplier) and Peaceful Valley Soil Builder Mix (learned about this in the Gaia’s Garden Book) this balanced mix includes “Bell Beans, BioMaster Peas, Arvika peas, Purple Vetch, Hairy Vetch, Common Vetch and Cayuse Oats. I am excited to see some results as these crops take off in the spring.

I recently re-read The Rodale Book on Composting and realized that the composting bin system we were using, made from recycled wood pallets, was not large enough. In a passive composting system your pile needs to be at least 4′ x 4′ x 4′ to generate enough heat to keep all of your little biological alchemists happy. Thus even though there was plenty of good “food” for the bugs the piles dried out too quickly and couldn’t sustain the temperatures needed to fully break down.

Yes it was time to “go big” with our compost pile.  We have reused an old section of chain link fence to create a large circular compost bin roughly 5′ in diameter by 4′ tall. In the end the new system occupies less space, looks cleaner and hopefully proves to be more efficient. As a bonus our fall garden cleanup generated exactly enough waste to completely fill this new bin.

One of the biggest challenges of composting in the arid Salt Lake valley is keeping the compost wet enough. With the small amount of natural moisture we receive each year it is important to make use of every drop. We should be able to more efficiently harvest this free moisture by maintaining a concave top in our pile encouraging rain and snow melt to funnel into the heart of the pile. If we lived in a wetter climate – it would be more appropriate to do the opposite so that water would flow out of the pile.

One other method that I may experiment with is composting in garden beds. I have heard of this before and quite frankly it appeals to my lazy side. Basic premise – dig a trench in the garden beds and bury your compost. Make certain it is not too close to where you are growing plants so that you do not disrupt the nitrogen levels for plant growth. I am a little concerned that this may create underground rodent highways with lots of fast food- so more research is necessary.

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