The Amazing Compost Pile Behind My House

www.mypicshares.com

Compost piles are truly amazing; they are a perfect example of the circle of life. You dump a bunch of organic material into a dedicated spot, keep adding to it, turn it now and then, give it air, sunshine, and a bit of moisture if it gets too dry…and within a year or so you should have a whopping pile of fantastically healthy dirt.

And that’s just what we have. A busy, bustling, incredible little eco-system all our own in our alleyway. Last summer my husband built a compost bin behind our fenced yard and beside our new shed that he constructed from the ground up the previous summer. He’s very proud of that shed. It was a tear-down project from our sad little dilapidated garage that couldn’t be salvaged because the wood was mostly rotted away.

It took him about three months of diligent effort working on it during evenings and weekends to raise it up from nothing. It has all the characteristics of our 1920s Craftsman style Bungalow, including the absence of coverings on the eaves, roof supports for the overhang on the front and back of the shed, and the cedar-shake siding. And it really needed something to keep it company. Now it has a compost pile there as its companion.

Today my son and I went out to see what had become of our little compost pile. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I do with a lot of projects in my home, I hadn’t done anything with the pile since we started it last summer. Not a single turn. I kept hearing that if you don’t turn it, you won’t have anything but half-decomposed material in the pile.

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So naturally I was a little apprehensive at what I might find. But after a few minutes of shoveling and turning, I began to discover this gorgeous, rich soil beneath where the grass had started growing on the top. A few big roots here and there and some tomatoes, egg shells, and squash that hadn’t quite broken down yet. But otherwise, glorious, moist, healthy soil. I was so happy! What’s really great is that once again I proved to myself that with not much effort or money, I could create something quite amazing and good for my health.

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I’m still in awe at nature’s cycles and how it really does take care of itself in a way that modern technology and science never could. This little pile (and actually, it’s really a pretty big little pile) of dirt is capable of sustaining life! I can use it in my garden and in my pots, and to grow my little seedlings that I started this week in the house for my garden when the frost finally stops for the season. Our dirt is replete with pill bugs (affectionately known as rolly-pollies), earthworms, and all the other necessary elements for healthy soil to make something grow.

It’s beautiful, moist, and rich – and that’s saying a lot for the typical dry, hard soils of southern Idaho which are known (infamously) for their frequent deposits of clay and sand. It reminds me of the expensive, acidic potting soils that western Oregon and Washington are so proud of, that people pay good money for at the garden center. Mine was practically free! The only cost was a little bit of lumber, wire, and all our leftover rotting produce and egg shells from our meals over the fall and winter.

So let’s review the benefits of a compost bin:

  • You can share with your children how life renews itself in one of the simplest ways imaginable – by dumping your unwanted organic material in a pile and watching it transform itself into something that can sustain life. If that isn’t a lesson in sustainability, I don’t know what is!
  • Having access to healthy, gorgeous dirt for all sorts of uses – gardening, planting, and endless other projects, all for the price some rotting vegetables and fruits.
  • It’s a project you can work on with your family or neighbors, gain fellowship over an honest day’s work, and get your Vitamin D at the same time.

Here are some of the more technical benefits of composting (courtesy of Compost Fundamentals):

  • Compost retains micro and macro nutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers and soil compounds.
  • Compost helps sandy soil retain nutrients and water better than without.
  • Compost causes tightly bound particles in clay or silt soil to loosen so so plant roots can spread, water, drain, and air penetrate.
  • Compost modifies the structure of soil, causing it to erode less and preventing spattering of soil on plants, which can be the cause of disease to spread.
  • Compost holds nutrients tight enough to keep them from washing out, but loosely enough so plants can take them up as needed.
  • Compost makes any soil easier to work.
  • Compost releases nutrients slowly, over months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers
  • Compost provides a buffer to the soil and neutralizes both acid and alkaline soils, thus bringing pH levels to the optimum range for nutrient availability to growing plants.
  • Compost brings a rich, diverse group of bacteria to feed the soil, also attracting the right type of worms, fungi, and insects to support the healthy growth of soil.
  • Bacteria in compost break down organics into plant available nutrients. Some bacteria are capable of converting nitrogen from the air into a plant-available nutrient.
  • Compost enriched soil have a wide variety of beneficial insects, worms, and other organisms that burrow through soil to keep it well aerated.
  • Compost may suppress diseases and harmful pests that could overrun poor, lifeless soil.
  • Compost increases the soil’s ability to retain water thereby decreasing runoff damage.
  • Compost encourages the growth of healthy root systems which also decreases runoff.
  • Composting can reduce or completely eliminate the need for use of synthetic fertilizers.
  • Compost can reduce chemical pesticides since it contains beneficial micro organisms that may protect plants from diseases and pests (hmmm, that sounds like something else we know – could it be eating real food to keep ourselves healthy and avoid taking medications and antibiotics?)
  • Only a 5 percent increase in organic material quadruples the water holding capacity of the soil

So what are you waiting for? If you have poor, lifeless soil in your yard or on your land, consider a compost pile as a start to begin the renewability of life in your corner of the world for cultivating and growing living things. Compost is where sustainable food comes from; it has made a believer out of me!

Budgeting and Planning for My Garden

11 Comments

  • April 9, 2010 - 8:55 AM | Permalink

    I SO want to have a compost pile, but DH claims they’re illegal in the city and also that it will stink :-(

  • April 9, 2010 - 10:07 AM | Permalink

    Wendy – I find it frustrating just how many natural things are illegal – raw milk, compost piles, certain types of information or statements about natural cures, the sale of some lacto-fermented foods. It’s ridiculous!

    Our compost pile hasn’t smelled so far, and it’s been extremely wet here over the last few weeks. Perhaps it will start to smell more in the dead of summer when we are piling stuff on and the heat is extreme. We live in the city limits, but I’ve never heard of any ordinances banning compost piles.

  • April 9, 2010 - 10:53 AM | Permalink

    I, too, have wanted to start a compost pile but haven’t yet. I really hope to get one going this year because my garden needs it :) Would you mind posting more pictures of the construction of your compost area – really building the thing is whats held me back so far, I’m pretty clueless :) Thanks!

  • April 9, 2010 - 11:49 AM | Permalink

    I started composting my kitchen scraps with my old compost bins.Our county went to large single garbage cans for recycle stuff so I was left with three large bins. I drilled some additional holes in the bottom and side for drainage and circulation, put a little dirt in the bottom (an inch or two) and added my scraps on top. I turn is once or twice a month while I continue to add scraps. I throw in some dried leaves occasionally as well. I have not had a smell issue.

    It is great for those with small yards, too!

    Cheryl

  • April 9, 2010 - 1:03 PM | Permalink

    We’ve had a compost pile for years, and it’s never smelled bad. For a couple of years we also composted some things right in the kitchen, using an old plastic ice chest and plenty of earthworms. That did not smell bad, either.

  • April 10, 2010 - 10:24 AM | Permalink

    Andrea – I asked my husband whether he had construction pictures (he likes to photograph his progress on projects), but he actually didn’t photograph that project. It’s really pretty simple construction (I’m not the builder around here, but that’s what my husband says). He just took some posts and built a simple frame with one side open (imagine a cube with no bottom and no top), and he nailed them together and treated them with a safe, non-toxic tar that prevents the wood from rotting. You could put a gate on it if you wanted, but we don’t have a lot of room, so we just left ours open (and we also use the space next to it for parking too, so we had to conserve space for that reason as well).

    Cheryl – I just learned that adding paper, like brown paper bags and newspaper helps with oxygen and nitrogen, which contribute to the health of your pile as well. I’ve also added leaves, clippings from our yard, and whatever else is laying around.

    Deputyheadmistress – I have been wanting to compost in the kitchen too, but my husband doesn’t think it’s a great idea because he thinks we shouldn’t spend the $$ for it right now (what can I say, he’s very cheap!) as we just started a new business last year and have to watch every penny we spend all the time. But I think it’s a great idea and want to start doing this sometime in the future.

  • April 13, 2010 - 6:13 PM | Permalink

    It will not smell if it is working right. If it smells something is wrong. Probably too wet or not turned to get air into it. Make sure no meat products of course.
    I used an old plastic trash can, the kind with the lid that screws on a little. I drilled 1/2 inch holes all over it. Up and down the sides, on the bottom and lid. It works great! I keep it on the dirt and water can drain right out. Every couple of weeks I just lay it down and roll it a little (careful that the top does not come off) to turn it and thats it. Keep it moist and add to it when we have stuff!

  • April 14, 2010 - 8:16 AM | Permalink

    Tim – what you said certainly makes a good amount of sense. The trash can idea is a good one, but I would worry about plastic seeping into my compost. That seems like a big drawback as we are trying to avoid plastic as much as possible in our house.

    I just added some new material to my pile last night and everything looked great. I wonder what will happen as the weather gets warmer with regard to smell, but for now everything seems to be in order.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • April 14, 2010 - 7:37 PM | Permalink

    hhhmmmmmm. Hadn’t thought of the plastic thing. We have gone the same way for the most part when it comes to food stuff as for as plastic goes. But the trash can is several years old and has lived outside for years before I cleaned it to use for compost so hopefully most of the “fresh” crap/chemicals that are in the plastic were already leeched out. But now you have me rethinking it. Good point!

  • April 14, 2010 - 7:59 PM | Permalink

    Tim – yes, I have become super paranoid about plastic these days. I wonder if you could use a metal garbage can in the same way? It might be much more challenging to poke holes in it though. But there must be some tool you could use for that. I bet my husband knows about something like that since he’s a contractor and owns a bunch of tools.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about the metal garbage can because that seems like it would be a great way to have a compost bin in a limited space. Our alley space is small, but if I didn’t have a compost bin there already, I could fit about a half a dozen metal garbage can compost bins there. That just might be a really good idea for those who have very limited space! :)

  • June
    May 5, 2010 - 12:46 AM | Permalink

    I found your page while searching for something I remember quite well from a northeastern house my grandparents lived in that had been built in the 1900-1920 era. There wasn’t much yard, but the house was equipped with a composting device, for lack of a better word, in a narrow side yard (more like a lawn alley) by the kitchen door. It was possibly some kind of metal tube, probably either a foot or two in diameter. Maybe it was just a hole, and there was no tube, I’m not sure. (The metal would have rusted out I would think. If it was a tube, it must have had slots in it.) I would say not more than 3 feet deep, probably less.

    The key thing was the cover. It was a round, HEAVY iron lid, about the size of a smaller trash can lid, (roughly even with the lawn surface, maybe raised a little) that had a foot pedal on it so you could raise the lid with your foot and didn’t have to bend over to lift it up, or touch it. Step on the pedal, the heavy lid lifts up. Dump in the kitchen waste after a meal, let the lid drop.

    It was painted a heavy black enamel, not really noticeable even in a neat, tidy lawn, probably so it wouldn’t rust. I think it did have to get repainted. It may have had some kind of art deco ironwork design on the top. You could stand on it and walk on it.

    Anyway, once you let the heavy lid drop, no animals could get at the waste, and you couldn’t smell it.

    The lid clearly was attached to something, and I seem to remember a very narrow ring of cement around the edge that the grass grew up to and over somewhat, so maybe this was some kind of cement tube with slots in it and an open bottom for drainage? The lawn grew up very close to the edge of the lid.

    I guess the worms and bugs did their thing, and the rainwater that washed through. And it seemed to work really well, even in a more urban suburban environment. It was right near the kitchen door and I don’t ever remember smelling a thing. It also was not a structure, so it wasn’t what a neighbor could possibly call unsightly.

    I wonder if anyone out there remembers seeing anything like this? It seems like a workable idea for someone who can’t have a pile or bin, and worries about attracting animals or having a smell issue.

    Some manufacturer must have been making these things, maybe lost to time.

    Maybe I should search patents.

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