Compost: Black Gold of Your Own Making in the Garden

The long hot days of mid-summer in the North State offers us a summer dormancy of a sorts, where it is often too hot to garden happily, too hot to plant much successfully and sometimes too hot to care. But this semi-dormant too hot time is a great one to review some of the basic underpinnings of your garden and your gardening. To go back to square-one and review what is working and what is not working and why.

This week’s is the first in a three-part series of articles which I am republishing in the hopes they will inspire me (and you), to take the time to stand back and evaluate/re-evaluate the foundation of my (your) garden. I start this week with soil health and the basic technique of composting to improve the health and sustainability of our gardens. Making our own compost diminishes our need for sending much of our green waste elsewhere, diminishes our need for and the cost of purchasing inputs for our garden elsewhere, and improves the health of our soil and thus our gardens and plants.

Compost is, of course, simply decomposed organic materials which we can add to our soils for a variety of reasons. Homemade compost that is purposefully tended with a variety of ingredients like fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, eggs shells, dry leaves and grass clippings improves the texture, aeration (friability) and water-retaining aspects of soil and can act as a slow-release balanced fertilizer for our gardens.

Read on…and enjoy.

“One acre well compast [an archaic form of ‘composted’], is worth acres three.” Ward Habriel becomes quiet and reverent as he quotes one of his heroes, J. I. Rodale, father of the modern day organic gardening movement. Quiet and reverent are clearly at the depths of their passion, but “gregarious and fun” are more accurate descriptors for Cheryl and Ward Habriel – Master Composters and avid home gardeners who have been visiting Paradise since the 1970s and have lived in upper Paradise full-time since 2004.

I first met Ward and Cheryl on the Paradise Garden Club tour a few summer’s ago – he was in charge of a home composting demonstration station. Their knowledge – and their senses of humor – became apparent almost immediately. In the handful of times I have gotten together with them, Ward generally has a Rot Hotline t-shirt on, their car has a bumper sticker that reads: Compost Happens. These people love compost. And they want us to love it too. “One of the great things about compost is that it happens whether you are part of it or not. Leave a pile of leaves and twigs and nature will compost it for you – it’s just the natural process of decomposing organic matter. That’s the science of it. The art and fun of it is when you decide to actively participate. I mean for heaven’s sake why buy what you can make for free and do a better job of it? You already have all the materials – no matter how large or small your estate or apartment might be!”

Ward and Cheryl are life-long home gardeners. In the mid-1990s, retired from the insurance industry and while still living in Castro Valley, Ward became interested in the idea of composting as way to save money and put his yard waste to work. He and Cheryl took an introductory class on composting by Alameda County and from there they were both accepted into the Master Composter program.

The Master Composter program requirements are similar to those of the Master Gardener program. For their program, the Habriels attended a three-hour class once a week for seventeen weeks and spent 8 hours on several Saturdays of the program on educational field trips. Once you have completed the program you are then responsible for providing 20 hours of volunteer compost demonstrations and presentations to interested groups – schools, garden organizations, farmer’s markets, etc. In order to receive your Master Composter certification you must also design and present a project in which you have identified an audience, created a composting related project and produce hand-outs and other resources for your audience to take home. In a class of mostly “young, long-haired, hippie-types” (a term used in the nicest way), Cheryl and Ward graduated with high-compost honors and Ward was voted class Vermidictorian (a word-play on Vermiculture, the name for worm-based composting – but that’s another segment).

In 1996, Ward’s enthusiasm and seemingly endless interest in giving volunteer composting demonstrations jettisoned him into his next career: Organic Garden Manager for the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (now known as StopWaste.Org). In this capacity he managed two large gardens around the county, including composting all plant waste, in Union City and Dublin.

Ward and Cheryl’s suggestions for composting are:

1. Remember that it’s simple.
2. You need only 4 things: Green stuff, brown stuff, water and air.
3. If you want to get fancy you can buy one or more bins.
4. If you want finished compost more quickly, chop all the vegetation you add to the pile into small pieces, add water and turn the pile to add air more often.

For getting started with home-use, back yard composting the Habriel’s start with just yard waste – “twigs, leaves, anything you prune, clip or cut. No animal poop, please. If you want to add kitchen waste as well, great!, Fruit and vegetable ends and peelings, egg shells (squashed up in your hands a bit), coffee grinds with their filters. Citrus rinds work best chopped up into small pieces. Just don’t add any meat, dairy or oil products. So – no leftover salad with dressing.” The other items they do not recommend adding are: “anything with thorns, gardeners are always using their hands and the thorns are not apt to breakdown as quickly as other things.” Also, “no diseased plants (such as roses with black spot or fungus), and no weeds that have already set seed.”

Other than that – throw it in! There are all kinds of bins on the market and bin system designs on the internet to build yourself. A bin that the Habriels like is the Biostack sold by various on-line retailers. “It’s good quality, easy to use, tidy and inexpensive.” They use one of these at their house, but they also have two or three open piles and hand-built wooden bins as well. For chopping up larger branches for his piles, Ward has an old lawn mower that he runs over the material a few times, and was featured in the video “Do The Rot Thing”. Finally, for using your finished compost around your own garden, the Habriels recommend screening the compost if you want a finer textured product. Ward has built a hardware cloth screen, which he uses over his wheelbarrow. “But those square, black plastic flats they sometimes send you home with from the nursery work really well, too,” Ward suggests. Anything that does not make it through the screen gets put back into the pile to keep breaking down.

After you add fresh green material – which is high in nitrogen – you will notice that your compost pile gets hot – physically hot. Some people (Ward among them) say you can slow-cook a turkey in a large pile. If a pile is reliably hot enough it can kill bacteria and fungal spores as well as weed seeds, however if it gets too hot – “over 145 degrees” – it will also kill the beneficial organisms helping to decompose the ingredients in the pile. If you get very interested in the fine points of compost, you can purchase a compost thermometer in order to monitor the temperature of your pile. There is some deep, gardening pleasure to putting the long thermometer into a hot pile and watching the gauge rise on the dial. When this happens for me, I feel like I got a good grade in school.

“If you keep a generally even balance between your green stuff (fresh clipped grass, for instance) and your brown stuff (dried leaves and twigs), your compost should never smell bad. If it does, add more brown stuff. Also, if you keep it about as damp as a wrung out sponge, you’re good,” Cheryl says in answer to commonly asked questions.

While you can compost animal waste, meat and dairy, it is a much more complex process that needs to be tended more carefully particularly in a home setting in order to avoid bacterial or fungal issues that would not make for good compost. I add all of the poop and wood shavings from my chicken coop to my compost pile when I clean the coop – once every 6 – 8 weeks depending. This works just fine. I turn (using a pitch fork) and water my bins frequently in the hot, dry summer months and once I put fresh chicken manure into the bins, I do not use compost from this bin for at least 6 weeks so as to not burn my plants with the ‘hot’ manure.

Home composting is not complicated – in its most simple form, it is ridiculously easy and if you get in the habit of diverting and even stockpiling grass clippings, dry leaves and kitchen waste into your compost, you will see how addictive and ‘feel-good’ a practice it is. The first time you spread your own compost onto one of your own garden beds, you will feel that incredible surge of pride and accomplishment along the lines of picking your produce. While there are fancy containers to buy for collecting your kitchen waste for the compost, I have found that for me the best way to keep me involved in my compost and its process, and to not have smelly messy compost ingredients in the kitchen is to empty my kitchen scraps daily or more.

“When your neighbors see how healthy your yard is, you then have an opportunity to explain the benefits of home composting. And if everybody did it, there would be less waste, cleaner environments, better tasting fruits and veggies, lower watering costs, and more leisure time to enjoy it all.”

After one of Ward’s class demonstrations in order to receiving his Master Composter certification, a woman in the class asked him: “Are you a preacher? Because when I listen to you, I want to believe!”

Me too.

Below is a hand-out on the basics of composting compiled by the Habriels: Click on each one to enlarge and print.

For more information about composting, visit a teaching garden or nursery of garden club in your area – we have so many good ones around the region. Just a few include: Young Family Farm in Weaverville, the Community Teaching Garden in Redding, McConnell Arboretum and Gardens at Turtle Bay in Redding, Associated Students Compost Display Area at CSU, Chico, Cultivating Community/GRUB in Chico, the Fair Oaks Horticultural Center in Fair Oaks, and the UC Davis Arboretum, and Center for Urban Horticulture in Davis.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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