Thursday, May 13, 2010

Compost By Any Other Name

Inspired by recent posts at Jean's garden and African Aussie.
I've been gardening long enough to observe changes in fashion and terminology that perhaps bespeak deeper cultural changes. My once "cheap," "old-fashioned" methods (bad) are now "frugal" and "sustainable" (good); the "weeds" I once grew are now "desirable native species"; and the closely-planted area where I mingle raspberries, rhubarb, herbs, and pollinator-attracting flowers, once a "disorganized mess," is now graced by the names "edible landscape" and "permaculture." (Yes, I know the French have long practiced the art of the potager, but hey, I'm an American--why let historical precedent get in the way of anything?)

Such it is with compost. I've long kept a compost pile going, or I should say the soil creatures have kept it going for me. Originally, I couldn't understand throwing away, in garbage cans, perfectly good grass clippings, etc. Later I had the same reaction to yard-waste bags that you have to actually buy and then pay to have carted away. Not only is it not waste, but I recently learned that much "yard waste" ends up in landfills anyway, only in layers instead of co-mingled. The new theory is that it somehow helps other landfill materials break down. I'd rather have it break down in my own yard. Besides, I'm cheap. I have other things to spend money on, like my children's college tuition.

But I digress. In the course of researching my book, which may never get finished, I learned that I'm no longer a lackadaisical gardener, too lazy to properly dig new beds or do a fastidious clean up to bare soil each fall and spring: no, I've been practicing "sheet composting" all this time. Now that it has a name, sit-in-the-shade laziness has morphed into method.

Let's say you want to make a new bed where presently grass grows, in my opinion nearly always a good idea. Sometime in late summer, mow the grass short and leave the clippings. Sprinkle on a little compost, or other organic material. Water well. Lay on six to eight layers of newspaper and wet thoroughly. On top of that spread several inches of wood chips. Spend the winter planning and dreaming. Next spring the area is ready to plant. This beats double digging, or even single digging every time, though it does take the patience of letting nature do the work instead of self or crews of "landscapers."

Here's what I do in my established "savanna" bed: In the fall I cut down non-natives such as peonies, but leave the natives standing. If I have any more-or-less finished compost, I scatter it around. When the leaves fall, I leave them be, and in fact add more. Long, cold, rainy-freezy-snowy-clear-cloudy-miserable-beautiful winter passes. In early spring I stir up the leaves a bit to let in some air, often with a stick I find lying around, too excited and impatient at this point to go in the basement for a rake. Later, when I judge the weather to be settled enough, I rake up the top layers of leaves down to the wet yucky layer, which I leave, and put them on the compost pile. When things warm up a bit more I chop down and chop up the natives. Some stuff goes on the pile, but some gets scattered on top of the partially-decayed leaves. The nest-building supply store is now open for business.

When I notice that not so many birds are rummaging through the debris, and I've finished grading final exams for spring semester, I go out, get some finished compost and spread about an inch on top of the other material. Then I lay on on an inch or so of wood chips, which my town will deliver for free; it's an urban forest--there's always plenty to spare. Much more than an inch invites slugs. If planting something new, I gently push the loose mulch aside, dig my hole, add a little compost, put in the plant and move the other materials back in place. That's it. I'm done for the summer, other than a little weeding and occasional watering and deadheading. Fall starts the cycle all over again.

My "prairie" and "woodland" areas get similar, but area-appropriate treatment. Everything seems to grow just fine, and I should add that I haven't bought or used fertilizer or pesticides in probably ten years or more. For more elaborate techniques, I highly recommend Toby Hemenway's book on permaculture, Gaia's Garden, which includes methods for dry, even desert, areas and spiffy charts and diagrams. Happy, lazy gardening to all.


*"Woman Reading in a Garden," Richard E. Miller. Image borrowed from
Russel Bowes, Garden History Lectures
*"Couch on the Porch, Cos Cobb," Frederick Childe Hassam.

10 comments:

jeansgarden said...

Don't you just love it when fashion catches up with you and your bad habits become good habits? Three cheers for all of us lazy, sustainable gardeners. (I felt the same way when some of my favorite foods, "bad" starches, morphed into "good" complex carbohydrates and when they decided that my one really serious addiction, tea, is full of antioxidants and good for you.) :-) - Jean

africanaussie said...

I am glad to have inspired someone, and that you got it, that I am not one of those people out there double digging. No, I relish my time on the swing admiring my garden too much! Looks as though your methods are working just fine.

Anonymous said...

You make it sound so easy and so beneficial all 'round, that you should be converting gardeners everywhere. Yea for summer days and the satisfactions they bring.
Anything new with the hummingbird project?
M.

Thomas said...

The one time I sheet mulched a lawn to convert it to a garden, I didn't wait long enough. Bits of newspaper haunted that garden for months. But it worked out in the end. Next time, I'll give it the proper treatment Enjoyed this post.

Anonymous said...

I admire your selection of art/illustration, particularly the two on this post. Those are happy reading ladies.
M.

Dave Coulter said...

Good gardening advice :)

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

This cracks me up.

My formerly crazy behavior is now admirable.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

This cracks me up.

My formerly crazy behavior is now admirable.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello all, thanks for your comments. I've been away for several days, but am now back.

Jean, yes, especially tea!

aa, swings are nice for viewing the non-work. Haven't got one, but do have a porch very like the second picture.

M, am launching a hummingbird website shortly. Stay tuned.

Thomas,The other thing you can do is layer some compost on top of the newspaper before you put on the mulch. Helps with the decay process.

Thanks, Dave.

Lisa and Robb,
Mine too. And maybe some of what has seemed "normal," (overuse of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides?) can now be viewed as crazy.

Anonymous said...

Today is Endangered Species Day (3rd Friday of May). The Endangered Species Coalition suggests "10 easy things you can do at home" to help endangered species, including providing habitat for wildlife by planting native vegetation in your yard. Just like you are doing, Adrian. It also includes minimizing the use of herbicides and pesticides.
For alternatives to pesticides, visit http://www.beyondpesticides.org

I just want to take a moment to thank all of you who are doing this important work. -- Judy E.