Way to Compost 5: In the Garden Compost

Not everyone has access to a large piece of land where they can hide a compost pile in a shady corner or stock pile lots of material. Not everyone will be visiting their garden on a regular basis, keeping it free of weeds and plants that have gone to seed.

Community or church gardens will be tended by several people, and the compost pile might be added to as people come and go or drying up in a forgotten corner requiring a major effort to get going again. On a lazier note, sometimes I just don’t want to haul raw materials out of the garden gate to the compost pile, compost them, then haul them all back in again with a wheelbarrow.

If any of these sound familiar, or if you want to save a little time and labor, the garden bed compost method is for you.

One fall day, I was standing in the garden just looking and not doing anything, which is usually when good ideas materialize. There was a lot to be done. Old tomato vines drooped in their cages, the squash plants had turned to mush with the morning frost, and the mustard had already gone to seed. I did not feel quite energetic enough to pull it all up, take several trips with the wheelbarrow to the compost pile out back, build the pile, then bring it all back in again in the spring. Too many trips!

Inspiration struck.

I went to the garage to find some chicken wire and staked it around the outline of one of the garden beds, maybe 3’ by 5’, and built the pile right on top of it.

Like every compost pile, I did my best to have both green and brown material in the mix. It wouldn’t be a perfect ratio, probably heavier on the brown, carbony stuff, but my goal was not to make a hot compost pile. This pile would sit and slowly compost all winter, so I wasn’t too worried about getting the ratio just right. I forked up the soil in the bed a bit and began with a layer of bulkier stuff on the bottom (tomato vines and old, woody radishes), then I layered brown and green stuff to a height of about two feet. I hauled in some fall leaves and old straw for the browns. I had some kitchen scraps sitting in a lidded garbage can that I brought in for greens, as well as anything left in the garden that wasn’t going to be eaten (mushy pumpkins, old tomatoes, and lettuce gone to seed). I was fortunate enough to have chickens, so I cleaned out the chicken house and used the mixture of manure, straw, and feathers to help heat up the pile. If you don’t have access to chicken manure, (the “hottest” of all manure, meaning it has a lot of nitrogen in it), you can buy a bag of bone or blood meal from a nursery or grain growers to sprinkle on top of each layer.

Instead of hauling everything out and then back in again, I was just hauling it in to stay. It was very satisfying to clean up fall leaves, the chicken house, and the kitchen scrap bin in one go and have a compost pile I wouldn’t have to move later to show for it.

When I was done, I covered it with old straw and went inside pretty pleased with myself. Using my compost thermometer, I checked on it after a week or so. The pile made it to about 100 degrees F, which is a good start.

Throughout the fall, the microorganisms worked on it. In the winter, they took a rest. In the spring, they started up again, and when the ground warmed up enough and I had a burst of energy, I took away the chicken wire, scraped off the top layer of straw, and went to work turning the pile straight into the soil. No wheelbarrow necessary! I gave the soil another couple of weeks to incorporate the compost, then planted right into it.

It was as fluffy as a raised bed, and came with compost included.

After that, I included a compost “bed rest” right into my usual garden rotation.

I haven’t tried this yet, but if you need more nitrogen in the soil, plant a cover crop that procures it from the air (any kind of legume, vetch, or clover), then build the compost pile right on top of that in order to break down the cover crop and add compost at the same time.

In the summer, it would be possible to build a compost pile on top of a bed and add worms to the mix in order to break the pile down even further.

There are endless compost-abilities!