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Confessions of a first-time composter

  • Juliana Jensen
  • When I first moved from San Francisco to my home in Mill Valley 18 years ago, I was mystified to discover what appeared to be an enormous heap of straw and leaves and dirt in a remote corner of the yard. A little prodding revealed a slightly odiferous and steamy center. My first thought on finding this unsightly mess? Haul it out! I now realize, of course, that what I hauled away was an enormously valuable resource: a well-established compost pile. It has been many years since I was that foolish novice gardener, and I realize that I need to bring composting back to my garden.

    Compost is a fantastic resource for the garden. In Marin, our soils tend to be heavy clay. Adding compost lightens the structure of the soil making it easier for the plant roots to grow and collect water. The organisms in compost — from the microscopic bacteria and fungi to the familiar earthworms — aerate the soil while releasing essential nutrients.

    The result is plants that are less stressed and need less water. Good compost can also reduce, or better, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers creating a healthier environment for all.

    There are many ways to compost. It is really important to the success of the project to choose a method that suits your disposition. I didn't think I was up to re-creating the giant pile with the required shoveling and turning. I couldn't face the worms: it was too much like having another pet.

    I didn't think I had even the basic skills to construct a wooden bin system. There is a simple method of creating a wire hoop and tossing in the compost, but I didn't want to encourage the rodents already scuttling through the underbrush. What to choose?

    I lighted on the tumbling composter. It is essentially a rotating plastic garbage can attached to a frame. The compost is layered inside the container and then "tumbled" every few days to mix and aerate the compost. These composters generally fit in small spaces and are rodent-resistant. They can create compost as quickly as four to six weeks. I had found my method.

    Now that I had my composter, what to put in it? Good compost requires a mix of "greens" and "browns." Essentially, "greens" are fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea bags, egg shells, fresh yard trimmings, manure from nonmeat-eating animals, weeds that haven't gone to seed and houseplants. "Browns" are dry leaves, small amounts of pine needles, untreated sawdust, and shredded paper, cardboard or newspaper. It is important not to compost meat, bones, fish, dairy products, fatty or greasy foods, diseased or nuisance plants, treated wood, ashes from a barbecue, or glossy or heavily colored paper.

    At last, I had a use for those coffee grounds, the lettuce that had gotten away from me in the vegetable bin in the fridge, the newspapers that had escaped recycling, all those leaves and garden bits from my enthusiastic pruning! I happily layered my composter with all my browns and greens and started tumbling.

    Here is what I discovered: For the first couple of days, there might be a bit of a stink coming from the composter. Just as I was despairing, the compost settled and took on a rich, earthy odor that was much more acceptable.

    Another thing, compost is full of microorganisms, but also organisms you can see: bugs, worms, flying things. If you know you want them to be there, it's not quite so disturbing to peek in and see them. Also, the composter gets a bit heavy. It wasn't a matter of easy spinning like a "Wheel of Fortune" dial. It took a push and a humpf to get it around. I also discovered that you can't just toss in the potatoes, cardboard and woody vines. Things need to be chopped enough to break down quickly.

    So how did it come out? Well, it's definitely not hunks of carrot anymore. There are some sticks and lumps (the corn cob was a mistake). I've learned which things don't compost quickly, and to tear cardboard into smaller pieces.

    But overall, my garbage and scraps have turned into a beautiful soil amendment just waiting to feed my garden.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.


    • Read: An excellent pamphlet on composting, "Growing Gardens from Garbage: A Guide to Composting, Mulching and Grasscycling," is available from the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners office in Novato. 

    • Click: A lot of useful information on composting is available on the Marin Master Gardeners website, ucanr.org/sites/MarinMG

    • Walk: If you want to conserve water with your freshly made compost and also get advice on irrigation systems, call Master Gardeners at 499-4204 for a bay-friendly garden walk appointment.