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Monday, March 24, 2014

Bake and Shake Composting

It's getting that time of year to start planting the summer vegetable garden, but before you do, make sure that your soil is ready to produce a whole new crop of edibles. I refresh my planting beds with compost that I've made from yard trimmings and kitchen scraps.

I've been using a three-bin compost system for years and really like the tidiness and speed in which I can create usable compost. Raw material goes into the first bin, and then is moved to the next second the following week. Moving it to the next bin helps keep everything aerated so the microbes, earthworms, and various other creatures can continue breaking down the plant material unfettered. After another week it is turned again into the third chamber.

By the time it has spent a week in bin three, it is pretty much ready to move out. Just to make sure, we built a screen to fit on top of the wheelbarrow. I fork the compost onto the screen and then shake it vigorously. The material that has broken down completely sifts through, leaving the chunks on top.

We build the screen out of materials we have on hand and make sure that it's not too heavy for me to manipulate. One year we made it entirely out of two-by-fours and I was barely able to shake it when it was loaded down with compost.

Our latest iteration is comprised of one-by-twos, 1/2-inch square galvanized mesh, and two handles from a wheelbarrow that we had to "put down" because it had completely worn out. The frame is built to sit on top of the rim. This way the wheelbarrow supports the weight and gives a smooth track surface to aid in sifting. Since there isn't any lifting, it's really saved my back from getting strained.

I shake it a good dozen times until I can see that what remains on top will not fit through the screen. This material is then tossed back into the first bin to go through the process again. Depending on what else is happening in the garden, I may take the chunky bits and place them around my ornamental plants as mulch.

The compost that remains is then wheeled over to the vegetable beds. I usually mix it into the top six inches of existing soil with my garden fork. Then I rake it level, set my irrigation, and plant my seeds. I'll also use it in established plantings as a side dressing or to mound hills for potatoes and corn. No matter how much I make there is never enough to go around. When I get really desperate I will buy compost in a bag - but it is never as good as what comes out of my bin so I try to hold out. I scrounge grass clippings and yard debris from the neighbors whenever my own fresh supply gets low, just to keep my piles cooking. I know, I should probably find other hobbies.

I really believe that the reason I am able to successfully grow food for my friends and family is due to my plant recycling efforts. The compost I produce smells great, really holds moisture, and my living plants love it. I never have to use commercial fertilizers and the compost contributes to a healthy soil environment. I encourage every one to start their own rot pile and give the "bake and shake" method a try!