Saturday, July 02, 2011

Making dirt until the sun shines

We’re entering the time of year out here where the sun is both my best friend, and my nemesis. On the one hand, we get an awful lot of growing-power from those death rays the solar radiation pouring down onto our heat-loving plants…on the other hand…

Sun burn. Heat exhaustion. The need to get stuff done coupled with the knowledge that only an idiot would be out there, in that kind of heat and blazing, unrelenting direct sunlight, trying to actually do it.

Which is why for the next few months, I’ll be making myself get up early(ish) on my weekends, so that I can get on out there before the temperatures hit the triple digits and the sun is blazing directly down on the top of what remains of my brains.

So this weekend, my main goal in the garden is to get my new compost system up and running. Up until now, compost has been a very hit-or-miss proposition for me – and I’m always short of the stuff, and thus am constantly finding myself having to add store-bought fertilizer to bring my tired soil back to life.

That gets pricy in a hurry. While I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to eliminate fertilizer purchases from my life, I’m fairly confident I can at least slow them down by getting organized with my compost methods.

So. The new system is very simple…which is a term which should be pronounced, “Very simple, just add a boatload of sweat and hard work and it will practically make itself.”

But it is very simple.

The husband is building me a four-bin system; these are good-sized individual bins, all right next to each other in a line.

These are bins 1 and 2...they're almost done, but still not particularly photogenic. They will have removable slats on the fronts, to make it easier for me to get stuff in and out of them.

The fourth bin will be the “finished” bin. My hope will be that, about once a month in the summer (when the heat helps considerably with the decomposition process), I’ll be able to shovel out that bin, run it through my sifter, trot whatever didn’t “finish” back to the front of the line, and wheel that good stuff on out into the garden to keep the nutrients coming for the hungry plants.

Which obviously means that the first three bins are increasingly closer to finished product…but actually, the whole process starts even further back…with a worm condo.

Our little beauty has four tiers in it; the top tier generally looks like this:

Raw food

Carrot peels, crushed-up egg shells, bean trimmings – all that stuff your kitchen tends to generate that usually ends up in the trash or the disposal. The worms will tend to live mostly in the top two tiers, because the bottom ones? Look like this:


Hmm. Somebody didn’t smash the eggshells fine enough there. Oh well, no big deal…because next, they’re going out to this:


This is a tumble-style compost bin. The marketing folks will tell you it can produce “finished” compost in “as little as” fourteen days…I have never gotten finished compost that fast. I have gotten “significantly broken down” compost, and even “almost similar to finished” compost…but not finished-finished.

HOWEVER. There is one thing this baby is really good for, and that is helping ever-distractible me have a seriously HOT compost pile going. That kills any unwanted seeds and just kind of gets the party started for me.

So what goes in here? Pretty much everything – the worm castings act as an accelerant, then I’ll add in browns (leaves, small twigs and wood chips), greens (lawn trimmings, weeds, that head of lettuce I forgot about that got kind of…liquefied…), and whites (shredded paper / newspaper), and whatever miscellaneous I’ve got lying around, like coffee grounds, tea bags, all that kind of groovy jazz. Add a little water so that it is moist but not drenched, put the lid back on, and remember to give it a spin every few days and peek at the moisture content.

A month later, I’ve got stuff that is well on its way to being compost – the heat and semi-obsessive maintenance means that I’ve had almost no odors, and between that and the sealed-up bin, I’ve also had no rodents or other curious / hungry varmints.

At that point, it’ll hit that first bin right next to the tumbler – along with coarser materials, wood chips or bark, torn up cardboard (cereal boxes and stuff), more shredded paper and newspaper, again, whatever-all I’ve got lying around that needs to cook for a while.

At this point, though, it’s pretty much a “fix it up and forget it” situation; I’ll water the piles if they need it, but overall they just sit and cook for the rest of the month. The bins will have the standard PVC-pipe aeration stabbed through them, so they’ll still be moderately-hot piles…but I won’t be adding any additional accelerants or turning the piles throughout the month.

But at the end of each month…we’ll have a little parade. The finished stuff will be added to any played-out topsoil I’ve scraped off a bed, stuff that got to the fourth bin without decomposing enough goes back to Bin 1, and we start the whole ride again.

All of which…is an awful lot of work. I put in about three hours on it this morning before it just got too damned hot and I was sweating more liquid than I could take in…not because it’s going to take that long once it’s ready to go, but because right now…I have to deal with what I already have.

The Work Station

Piles of top soil, stump grindings, sand, and finished compost. Not just a little, mind you, but a lot. AND, I need to deal with everything that is on the other side of that shed…you know, the stuff currently in the bins the husband is in the process of building. It ain’t compost, it’s a mash-up of dirt, topsoil, potting soil, semi-rotted leaves and grass clippings, random bits of wood and gosh-only-knows what-all else.

It all needs to be shoveled out, sifted, sorted, and put in its proper place.

And that part? Is all me, baby.

This is my current sifter. The husband is making me a better one, thank gawd, because this one is small and a bit hard to use. Plus it is murder on my gloves.


The top part is the sifter – anything bigger than the mesh, like river rocks, gravel, leaves and certain bugs (yikes), stays in the sifter. Below there, you can see what I end up with…it’s lovely. It’s soft dirt, with only those “right-sized” bits of Other Stuff, like itty-bitty rocks and such, which let plant roots “breathe” and help keep our clay from locking back up into cement around them.

It’s going to be a long, hard weekend…and I’m not actually sure I can get it all done, no matter how much I want to, or how enjoyable I actually find it. Because it is fun work for me, when I’m not two degrees away from heat exhaustion; it’s soothing, and makes me feel like I’m doing something.

Still…I may not like it, but, I have limits. And I’ve crashed into them a few times too many recently. I’m tired, wrung-out, stressed-out, and really need to back down and learn to let things go undone once in a while. (I only do that well when it comes to housework.) (Oh, yeah, believe me, I can ignore housework for weeks on end…just look at my bathrooms!) (…um, actually? don’t look at them…or the hallway…ahem…yes, things have a way of…accumulating out there, and sort of…not…going away…)

So, one foot in front of the other, and not too crazy with my bad self, making dirt only until the sun is shining…so that I can keep seeing things like this right in my own backyard.

Kentucky Wonder pole bean
Kentucky Wonder pole bean, making with the sweet little blossoms…and, FOUR WHOLE BEANS today!!

oooooh, just give ‘em a second…I’ll be screaming uncle with these babies soon enough, I suspect…


Steph B said...

You have kids big enough to provide a little extra muscle now, right? Give them a (slightly smaller) shovel and let 'em have at it! They're going to need to learn sometime, yes? So teach them now and save your back at the same time. :-) It's all about utilizing available resources, baby!

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that a $5 bill waved in front of a kid will often be enough to get the top layer of crud scraped off a bathroom floor and tub, leaving the easier bits for the maidofallwork aka The Lady of the House.

Paula B said...

Where does your Worm Condo live? I need to convince my sweetie that we need one of those to jump start our compost, but I can just hear what he'd say if I told him it goes in the kitchen...!

Mother of Chaos said...

We keep the Condo out in the garage - it *could* go in the kitchen, but I'd really rather not, to be doesn't smell BAD, exactly, but it isn't exactly minty fresh, either. 8^D