Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Compost Bin Alive and Well

We turned the compost the other day. An annual rite of spring and often fall, too, for many gardeners, turning the compost pile aerates the bin and speeds up decomposition. Built late last summer on a blindingly white hot day, we've steadily filled it with garden materials, kitchen waste, and a bag or two of leaves “stolen” after dark from our neighbors and from along a nearby bike path. (Thankfully, we weren't the only ones. Other bikers occasionally zoomed by in the dark precariously balancing big bags of leaves on their baskets. We all pretended not to notice each other, but it is always nice to see a kindred spirit.) Some of those leaves turned into mulch on the west wall bed, and some got thrown in the compost bin to balance out the mix of greens and browns. (Greens are a source of nitrogen for the critters snacking away, and the browns are a source of carbon. Both are required in some balance to keep the compost bin community happily eating, pooping, and reproducing.)

What we found was all I could have wished: a lively community of worms, insects, slugs, and other critters shocked at the sudden change in light, temperature, and space. I'm sure they didn't appreciate the unceremonious flop to a new spot via pitchfork, but it was clearly the highlight of my day. Seeing so much life there convinced me that I am on the right track in my little corner of the farm. These creatures don't just break down the things in the bin, they signify life and a healthy soil, which means hearty plants and a good harvest. It felt like Christmas with a little bit of Thanksgiving thrown in for good measure, but missing the fireworks of Hanabi in August and the Fourth of July.

After taking a few celebratory photos, we finished turning the contents. Once the new bin was filled to the brim, we gave it a good drink of water. It had rained the day before, so things were damp, but with the sun-washed day still heading for its peak temperatures, a sprinkle of fresh water would refresh and encourage my slimy neighbors to resume breaking things down in their new digs.

There was enough leaf and hummus mix left to spread a few buckets on one and a half beds being prepped for summer crops. More went on the west wall bed in a space vacated by the yacon. The results may or may not be interesting. The west wall bed is never tilled, and the easternmost bed is tilled at least twice a year. After spreading the compost, I covered both areas with the black plastic material used to mulch the most recent round of winter crops. The plastic should keep things from blowing or washing away, and it raise temperatures underneath a bit to encourage decomposition. Battened down with a rather unattractive mix of old bricks and assorted stakes, they will cook away until tilling time.

A number of worms and other critters went along in each bucketful, and I'm hopeful they'll settle in comfortably. I worry some about the impending tilling of the eastern bed as that is not always a welcome activity for my quiet, slimy friends, but my fingers are crossed that some will hang around. Meanwhile, the remaining compost is a bit too chunky to be spread at this time. The farmers worry in turn and rightly so, about large pieces of things being tilled into the beds. The work of breaking down those big chunks can tie up valuable resources vegetables need for growing, but at this moment my desire to build a better soil is greater than the one for a homegrown sweet, fat kaboucha for our first round of houtou udon in the fall.


Matron said...

How exciting!! I love the science of the compost heap. It really is the heart of the plot. One of my kitchen compost bins didn't do so well, I think the worms didn't last the cold Winter!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks, Matron! Me, too. It's so exciting. I just spotted a salamander-like critter, too, which makes me doubly happy. I'm hopeful the ginormous toad that lived under the bergamont last summer also returns. He was always a bit shocking, but still a pleasant companion.

Jennifer Willis said...

Great post!

Do you worry about slugs hitch-hiking via your compost into your garden crops and eating your plants?

Barbara McDowell Whitt said...

Joan, your post about your compost bin and its small creatures brought back memories of my gardening when I still lived in our house in Kansas City and my husband was working for the federal government in Washington, DC. Two of the things I miss most now that we live in a condo are flower gardening and bird feeding and watching.

I read your posts about the March earthquakes you experienced near Tokyo and in Shizouka on your way to Osaka, while you were on crutches which you had before the earthquakes happened. I am glad you and your husband are okay. I love your pictures of the beautiful plum blossoms.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Hi Jennifer, I'm not too worried about them, I confess. They're hard pressed to survive in the garden during summer's crazy heat and dryness, and if they do I'll just send them back to the bin. Or offer them up to our local bird population. :)

Hi Barbara, Thanks for the kind words and good wishes. Life is coming round to normal despite the occasional aftershock. The garden and the farm have really been the salvation of my sanity these weeks. They've kept me grounded (no pun intended) as well as somewhat distracted from the media mayhem. And I'm glad you like the plum blossom photos. They are my favorite, I think, even more than the sakura (cherries).