One of us began his career in home improvement at the ripe old age of nine working as a gardener/handyman for an aunt and uncle who had a bigger than average home and garden. The job required lots of time – after school three days each week and all day on Saturday.
The projects ranged from cleaning wood floors, painting wood windows and repairing fencing to pulling weeds, mowing lawns, trimming hedges, pruning roses and fertilizing plants. The job, scheduled to last for only a summer, became a nine year odyssey and the beginning of a life long interest in gardening and home improvement. At the time, it seemed like a lot of work for a youngster and indeed it was. In retrospect, though a valuable experience and while we strongly believe in the work ethic, we have encouraged our kids to pepper a bit of work experience with youth appropriate activities such as scouts, sports, dance, etc.
The landscape maintenance end of the job generated tons of material that was hauled off by the local garbage company. Leaves, lawn clippings, weeds, shrub and hedge trimmings would easily fill up to a dozen garbage cans in a week’s time. That was before America’s landfills began to overflow and recycling became the politically correct and environmentally friendly thing to do. At the same time, our aunt was spending a fortune on fertilizer to keep her garden green and filled with colorful flowers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until adulthood that we learned that our aunt and uncle could have saved a veritable fortune in garbage fees and commercial fertilizer by manufacturing their own fertilizer through the miracle of composting. The very materials that the garbage company was hauling away – grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps (not including meat and bones), weeds, etc. — were the perfect ingredients for a compost pile. Combined with air, moisture and manure and properly layered and covered in just a few weeks, voila, you’ll have a perfect batch of compost.
Compost can be used to amend soil for lawns, gardens, ornamental plants, trees and potted plants. And, like anything, it can be as much or as little work as you want to make of it. The more energy you put into it, the faster you will produce the finished product.
One of the most appealing aspects of a compost pile is that it can be located virtually anywhere in your yard except up against your house or any structure that you value such as a fence or garden structure. The same macro organisms (bugs, etc.) that aid in the composting process can become a pest control problem. Thus, it is recommended that a compost pile or bin be kept at least two feet from any structure.
All you need to build and maintain a compost heap is a pitchfork, shovel, water hose, axe, string trimmer, wheelbarrow, garden gloves and one or more compost bin(s). Although a bin is not necessary, it is useful in keeping your pile looking neat and it helps retain moisture and heat – both of which are integral to the process. A bin will also protect the material from being disturbed or scattered by wind or foul weather. A bin can also prevent wayward animals and pests from making a meal out of the contents of your compost pile.
A compost bin can be built from scratch or many styles of ready made models are available for purchase.
For example, a nine foot length of welded wire fabric (three feet high) will make a good bin when formed into a circle and wired together at the ends. Another equally popular design consists of chicken wire nailed to a frame made of 2 by 4’s. Use redwood or cedar to improve lasting quality and avoid pressure treated material to prevent toxicity in the compost – especially if it is to be used in a vegetable garden.
A very inexpensive bin can be made using four wooden pallets to create a box. These bins cost almost nothing and most of the construction work is already done for you. An added bonus is that you are diverting pallets that might otherwise end up in landfill sites. It doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly than that. Assembling the “pallet bin” is easy; simply screw or wire three of the pallets together to create three sides of a box. Attach bolt latches to the front edge of the bin and to the remaining pallet to make a removable door.
Irregardless of the materials used to construct your compost bin, it needs to be open sided to allow for good air circulation – a must for composting. The size of the bin should range from three to five feet across and should be no more than five feet high.
The secret to a successful compost pile is a lot like making perfect lasagna – it’s all about layers. The classic organic gardener’s recipe for compost calls for a layer of vegetable matter about six inches thick, a layer of manure about two inches thick – no pet manure please – and a thin layer of soil with ground limestone added. This layering sequence is repeated until the pile is three to five feet high. A small depression or well is made at the top for watering.
After about two weeks, bacteria will have converted much of the material in the pile to compost and caused it to heat up – another necessary ingredient in the composting process. By this time, the bacteria will probably have run out of oxygen and the pile must, therefore, be turned to be aerated. In another week or two the compost can be worked into your soil. Large clumps that remain can be recomposted in the next batch.
A compost pile loves kitchen waste such as coffee grounds and egg shells. Even feathers, wood ashes, ground stone and shells can be composted along with yard wastes. Avoid meat and bones, large amounts of sawdust, pet manure and metallic or plastic objects.
Composting is one of the most direct and beneficial forms of recycling around.