My Pile: To Each His Own

Every compost heap, by definition, evolves organically, in its own way.

My pile suits my backyard and reflects the New England climate and the resources I bring to bear on it, including my own energy and ambitions.

My brother lives in the rural high country of New Mexico. He owns a small ranchette and keeps an old mare in a corral out back, rescued from a shelter. His compost pile and its concerns are wholly different from my own. Seeing my pile for the first time, he expressed envy for its copious amounts of leaves and ample supply of rainwater, as well as the seaweed. He has manure, hay and kitchen scraps, but with the arid desert and daytime heat, keeping his backyard heap wet enough is a constant problem, as is keeping the coyotes at bay. Instead of decomposing, his pile dessicates, becoming more a mound of mummified remains than a compost heap. I advised him to consider pit composting, and to locate it near the water trough for the horse, for easy access to both water and manure.

Closer to home, a nearby friend has house atop a small rocky outcrop, with towering oaks that shade all but a patch of her backyard, on which she tends a small garden of herbs and vegetables. Without the time or inclination to amass a heap of leaves, she instead tucks her garden trimmings into a tumbler set up on the side of her house. It looks like a 55-gallon oil drum on a rotisserie, and churns out buckets of compost in short order that she spreads across her tidy garden.

On a larger property just down the road, one of the original farmsteads in town, is a barn and open field behind the main house. The owners keep a small menagerie of a few sheep, a couple goats and a llama in an enclosure near the road. When my son was younger, he’d delight in stopping by to pet the animals through the fence along the road. The acreage behind the barn lies fallow, and a real estate sign indicates that the owners are just waiting for the right price to develop the parcel into new homes.

A view of one of the last tracts of open land left in Westport, on which the owners have spread leaf mulch to compost.

A view of one of the last tracts of open land left in Westport, on which the owners have spread leaf mulch to compost.

But some agriculture still takes place, if only for tax purposes, and a couple years ago I was delighted to see the owner spreading truckfuls of leaves collected from the town’s fall cleanup across an acre of so of freshly plowed land, depositing them in long windrows about six feet tall.

Over the course of a few months, he turned the windrows with a small front-end loader, then spread the cooked-down lot across the field. Sheet composting, it’s called, and by the next year the ground had absorbed it all, and it’s now a rich meadow of field grass.

The scale of the operation puts my puny pile to shame. But then again, I would imagine that the urban composter with a vermiculture setup under the kitchen sink would say the same thing about my backyard compost heap.

On my shelf of compost books is a title from England, “How to Make and Use Compost – the Ultimate Guide,” by Nicky Scott. Published by Green Books, it’s a useful compendium of composting tips, if a little foreign.

Particularly intriguing is the chapter, “Choosing the Right Composting System,” which leads with a description of the Dalek bin.

“The compost bin that most people are familiar with is the plastic ‘dalek’-type bin, promoted by local authorities. Sizes vary from just over 200 litres to 350 litres, some have access/inspection hatches, and they come in a variety of colours. Millions of these are now in use in the UK.

“Daleks are lightweight, so you can move them around the garden easily and plonk them down where you want either on earth or hard ground. They contain your materials, so you just need to mix or layer the material as they go in.

“When they get pretty full, lift the whole bin up – as if making a sand castle – and if you have enough space put the bin down next to your compost castle and fork the top, uncomposted layers back into the bin. The bottom section should be nicely composted and ready to use…

Some councils have given bins away free; other councils pass on the benefits of being able to bulk buy, so that the bins are offered at wholesale cost price, around 12-15 pounds…”

A collection of Dalek bins at a garden center. "Danger, Will Robinson!"

A collection of Dalek bins at a garden center. “Danger, Will Robinson!”

The English love their gardens, and long ago raised gardening to an art form. So it should come as no surprise that in the land where every man’s home is his castle, millions of council houses and flats have one of these stubby little bins in the backyard, castles of compost.

It saddens me to realize just how backward our own country remains when it comes to backyard composting – but in a glass-half-full way I’m optimistic when I think just how much potential there exists for Americans to take to composting in the individual way that best suits their own needs. As they say, people who wonder whether the glass is half empty or full are missing the point: The glass is refillable…