It is May, which means that the community sharecropping season, in which we garden on other people’s former lawns, has begun. They are the lawn lords, my husband is the fanatic sharecropper, I am his opinionated side kick.
We had a cold, late, wet winter, so couldn’t really get into the gardens with equipment until last week. This year we only have three gardens in other people’s yards. The owner of our smallest garden moved to New York City, so we had to close down shop at her house. A second lawn lord has mostly taken over her own garden, so we only get involved to help her start up in the spring or to offer advice or extra labor as needed. She still gives us some of the produce, and we give her some of ours, but it is more of a friendly exchange than serious community sharecropping. But our three biggest gardens remain intact, with two being expanded a little this year.
Today was a beautiful day, so we moved compost from the pile in our back yard to the neediest garden. We make compost all year from whatever is at hand; neighbors’ grass trimmings, fallen leaves, rotted straw that a juvenile offenders’ facility gives us from its Halloween display, kitchen scraps of all types, weeds, and horse manure. An acquaintance of ours has three horses and was deliriously happy when we asked him if we could obtain manure from him. He gives us all his muck from April to November or December when the snow makes it impossible to move it around. Every two weeks or so he delivers it to our driveway packed into horse feed sacks, which we return to him to reuse. We drag sacks of horse manure all over the place in a trailer we attach to our Honda. We have a big pile in the woods in the back of one of the gardens and we put some into our own back yard compost pile.
Making compost can be as tricky or as simple as you want it to be. Some people have beautiful, neat, artistically layered compost piles with the perfect mix of raw materials that they turn every few weeks. On the other end of the spectrum, one of our lawn lord families tosses their kitchen scraps out over their back deck, one story down, to more or less hit a small chicken-wire compost bin they built in their back yard. They’ve been doing this for years, but never used the compost, or even turned it, till we came and tilled up their front yard to grow wheat.
Our basic rule of thumb is to layer yellow (straw, chopped up fallen leaves), green (kitchen scraps, grass clippings) and brown (manure). We make our compost inside of an old dog kennel in order to keep our dog out of it, since horse manure is one of her favorite flavors. Inside the kennel we have piles of manure (and, no, it doesn’t smell), leaves that we chop up in the fall with our lawn mower and collect in the bag attachment, and anything else we have found or saved that seems like it might make good compost. All winter long we throw our kitchen scraps into a pile in the kennel, then when it warms up, we build a new layered pile of manure, leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps, which we turn with a shovel maybe four times a year if we are being exceptionally diligent. The more you turn it, the faster it becomes usable compost; we are not in a hurry. We keep this up all spring, summer and fall. We add new kitchen scraps as we produce them, and then cover them with leaves and manure every few days. They get rained on, they get frozen, it is all good. After a year or so, voila, compost. A new pile gets started in the spring as the old pile goes out to the gardens.
Almost anything organic can be turned into compost. Coffee grounds and egg shells are highly desirable. A friend in Cape Cod uses sea weed. Most people don’t put meat scraps in their compost because it can attract animals, but we usually toss cooked chicken scraps or cooked or raw fish scraps into our compost bin if there aren’t too many of them and they are mixed up with the rest of the food we ate. Some people don’t put citrus peels or corn cobs in their compost, but we do. Sometimes you see an orange peel or a chicken bone lying around your garden, but most of it gets broken down by the mechanical action of the tiller or by the slow erosion of time. Hair is ok. None of it matters: everything breaks down into soil eventually, even mountains. Chopping things up helps it go faster.
If your compost pile is high and big enough, it heats up and kills all the weed seeds contained in the pile so that they don’t germinate. The compost pile also produces a huge crop of earthworms that process the soil through their guts and enrich it with casings. Never make your compost pile on concrete, it should be in contact with the living earth so that the bacterial masses and worms and hyphae can come creeping in to turn your old organic waste into rich, crumbly soil.
We use our compost for every plant related thing you can think of; to fill our containers of seedlings, to repot our house plants, to side dress our lilacs, to spread out over our gardens. Our compost is not perfect, but it is better than most you can buy (although not sterile so not good if you have really finicky young plants you want to start). It cuts down on the trash you produce or toss into the water supply system via a garbage disposal. It recycles your lawn and house scraps and turns them into the salad, garlic, leeks and tomatoes on your plate. It provides food for the astonishing array of bacterial and fungal life that keep this planet’s ecosystems going. And it keeps your dog mentally alert since she will be busy trying to find ways to break into the compost kennel in order to roll in the horse manure and eat the mildewed bagels. You don’t have to have any special equipment, you don’t have to live in the country, you don’t need tons of space. If you live in an area without municipal composting, just do it.