Noe Valley Voice May 1999

Compost Yourself

By Mary J. Karraker

Several months ago I visited one of my daughters, who lives in Arcata. She has a nice house and yard. As we strolled around the yard, she revealed that she had started composting, "just like Dad did."

You can imagine my horror when I went to look at her compost pile and found hotdog buns, bones, and corn husks and ears lying about the pile. They had been untouched by the process. So I grabbed a shovel and began throwing the offending victuals from the enclosure. I also took it upon myself to turn, feed, and water the pile. There were not too many worms, but far too many sow bugs...a bad sign. After giving explicit instructions, I left my daughter to the task.


Earlier in this century, I was married to Dave, a disciple of the visionary Euell Gibbons, who when he wasn't Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop, ...the Wild Asparagus, or ...the Wild Herbs, was writing for the periodical Organic Gardening. Euell felt that with all that stalking, you could live off the land and take good care of it at the same time.

When Dave, who worked for the National Park Service, was transferred to Washington State (Port Angeles), we jumped into gardening in a big way. We lived on an acre and a half of fertile loam and third-growth timber, nestled among the banana slugs. In the wild areas of our hillside property grew blueberries, red huckleberries, salmon berries, and thimble berries. The garden held strawberries and raspberries galore. We tried growing all kinds of vegetables, from potatoes to Dave's beloved Brussels sprouts. Due to the cool wet weather, not all of our projects flourished. But we sorted that out and lived well from the fruits of our toil.

After the rainfall, the next greatest hazards were our two chipmunk-cheeked daughters, who with an overriding affinity for mud, liked to help. Try as I might, I couldn't convince them that the gentle, horizontal movement of garden tools was preferable to the vertical chop. I had never before looked at a child's garden rake as the staff of the Grim Reaper, but there you are.

With such a large garden and lawn, we found ourselves with an abundance of waste plant material. As Euell had advised, composting was the answer.

After a rainstorm, the compost would get soaked and heavy, making it difficult to turn. During the winter it was like stirring cold oatmeal. Just when we had the hang of it and things seemed to be "cooking," we were transferred to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

On the East Coast, the weather was hot and humid, and the compost flourished. We added a chubby-cheeked boy to our gardening-by-mayhem crew, and continued to cultivate with gusto. We had two gardens and numerous flower beds, so there was fuel for the compost pile, which eventually became three. As with eating peanuts, we just couldn't stop.


People often have the wrong idea about composting. If the pile is properly cared for, it decomposes all manner of plant materials, including paper. It also provides excellent garden soil. And it doesn't smell.

As for earthworms, think of the compost pile as a condo for night crawlers and red wrigglers. (They do make turning the pile with a shovel a little gruesome, but a digging fork minimizes the damage.) Worms are the composter's greatest little helpers. As they help break down the vegetation, they aerate the soil and leave behind fertilizer-rich castings.

Piles must be watered and fed, along with being turned. You can also take the internal temperature to see if they are cooking properly. Part of the secret of composting is to add enough (but not too much) green material, which produces heat as it breaks down inside the pile. Of course, Dave and I had an especially long thermometer for checking on this important activity. I can't recall the optimum temperature, but it was up around 140 degrees.

One couldn't get too carried away with the greens, however, and the material had to be dry as you mixed it in, so it wouldn't clump. Many an unfortunate gardener has unwittingly thrown all of his green grass clippings into the pile, only to return later and find the clump still sitting there, undigested, like a fossil from a prehistoric mowing.

So composting is a science, not for the faint of heart. It isn't just ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The mechanism is more complex than that. You must know what you are doing. No matter how tasty the table scraps might be, you must be discerning about casting them into the pile. No bones or corn husks!


Which brings me back to the beginning of this saga. When I returned to my daughter's house several months later, she proudly showed me her revitalized compost pile. She excitedly described how the worms had drilled through the tea bags and coffee filters and tunneled through the leftover squash. (Since she is a vegetarian, she had no shortage of materials for the pile.) She then pointed to the small, edible potatoes that had sprouted from the peelings she had deposited.

Later, as I headed back to San Francisco, I thought about my small apartment on Elizabeth Street. I am able to recycle, but I don't see much chance of gardening in my future. I will be mightily tempted, however, if Tuggey's Hardware ever starts offering those sleek, black, Darth Vader ­looking composters.

Mary "Jeff" Karraker has been a U.S. park ranger for 23 years. She currently works as a supervisor at Alcatraz Island. Originally from Colorado, she now makes her home in Noe Valley.

A Recipe for Composting

- Dig a hole, 1 to 2 feet deep and 3 to 4 feet wide. (Or buy a plastic compost bin. SLUG and Cole Hardware are offering the "Earth Machine" for $19.99.)

- Remove pieces of sod, rocks, and twigs from the soil you have dug up.

- Put leaves, grass clippings, organic kitchen waste (such as salad leftovers, vegetable peels, and egg shells), coffee grounds, and tea bags into the hole. For your health's sake, don't add dog or cat droppings or kitty litter.

- Sprinkle a thin layer of dirt over the pile, and water it lightly. Continue to layer each time you add scraps. Water if needed. The pile should be kept moist, but not so damp that mold grows. Always end up with a layer of dirt on top.

- In about three weeks, dig into the edges of the pile and turn it over on itself. Look to see what wondrous things have sprouted.