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Compost Happens

Turn your yard waste into compost—free, pure fertilizer for your garden. Find a new place to garden, and forage for spring greens.

It’s still cold at night here in southern Alameda County, too cold to plant such veggie garden mainstays as tomatoes, squash and string beans.

There are three things you can do right now, though, to get your green thumb going. First, start a compost pile in your yard or garden plot so it’ll be ready to fertilize those summer crops by June.

Secondly, if you need more room to garden, check out the Hayward Community Gardens, which is renting yearly plots right now to folks in Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Fairview, Ashland, Cherryland and throughout the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (sorry, doesn't include San Leandro).  

Finally, forage for the early spring greens such as horseradish that are springing up after winter rains.

If you don’t have a compost pile, you’re wasting money and resources. It’s easy, and contrary to popular belief, it’s clean.

I make my own potting soil, too, on my rented plot at the Hayward gardens. All I do is pile up organic matter – leaves, weeds and vegetable scraps – in such a way that air and moisture can get in.

The air and moisture enable beneficial microbes, insects and earthworms to break down the yard waste into a form from which plant roots can absorb the nutrients they need to flourish.  

The microbes’ biological activity causes the temperature to rise as high as 200 degrees as the microbes proliferate and the pile decomposes. (When I was a crime reporter in the high Sierra, I’d follow search-and-rescue teams looking for dead-body-shaped depressions in the snow.) Sometimes, on cold days, you can turn a compost pile and see steam emerge.

Castro Valley master composter  says homemade compost is more reliable than that available at the store. 

“Many store-bought composts can be mostly redwood shavings or other material that is lacking in nutrients and costs money,” . “When you make your own compost, you know what is in it.”

To begin, roughen a patch of soil. Dampen the roughened ground and save any removed soil to put on top of the finished pile.

Put a 4-to-6-inch layer of small branches or thick plant stems on the roughened, damp earth. The really elegant way to start a pile is to dig a small depression, then top it with a wide screen or lattice -- old refrigerator shelves work well -- and lay the branches, etc., on top of that.

As the compost "makes," it will drop into the depression, from which you can easily retrieve it with a shovel.

To complete the pile, top the branches with alternating 4-6 inch layers of green waste, brown waste and soil, sprinkling the layers with water as you go. The green layers are heavy in nitrogen; the brown ones are heavy in carbon.

Your pile will “make” faster if you keep these layers in mind. What’s green, what’s brown? Here’s a mnemonic: Your carbon layer is crunchy stuff: dried, dead grass and twigs; well-rinsed eggshells. Your nitrogen layer is nasty stuff: vegetable table scraps; horse, cow or rabbit manure; coffee grounds, grass clippings and green weeds.  

As the microbes do their work, the pile’s interior temperature peaks, then cools. White cobwebby fungi, earthworms, sowbugs and pillbugs move in to decompose what the microbes have left behind. As all this happens, the pile shrinks. When ready to use, the pile will have decomposed to one-quarter of its original size.

Ray offers these tips to make compost in only 4-6 weeks:

1) Cut all of your "browns" and "greens" in small 3-6 inch pieces so that it will break down faster. The bigger the pieces, the longer they take to break down.

2) Each layer should be moistened with enough water to feel like a wrung-out sponge.

3) Don’t be stingy: A good 3x3x3 foot pile will heat up better than a smaller one.

4) Turn the pile once a week and add water as needed.

Personally, I am a lot lazier than Ray, and I rarely turn my piles. This means my piles take longer to make – three months or more. It also means my finished pile has a "donut" shape with a fine, crumbly dark center and partially un-composted outer ring.

This happens because the microbes proliferate in the center of the pile and make it hotter.  I sift the fine inner material through a colander and use it as potting soil. I spread the larger, partly composted matter on the outside of the "donut" as mulch, or use it as the bottom layer of a new pile.

Whether you turn your compost or not, there are important things to avoid.

1) Never put fats, oils, dairy or meat scraps in your pile. “They can be hard to break down and cause the pile to stink and attract rodents,” Ray says. Rinsed eggshells are fine.

2) Never put manure from carnivorous animals (dogs, cats, people!) in your pile, because it can carry E.coli and other harmful organisms. (For the same reason, no dead bodies, OK?)

3) Never put in poisonous plants like oleander and poison ivy.

4) Don’t let the pile dry out or the heat generated by the microbes will attract rodents to build nests there. (Because, lazy me, I don’t turn my piles, I keep them wet by building perforated PVC pipes into the center and running a hose into the pipes.)

5) The heat of the microbes will kill most weed seeds (though it will cause unshelled nuts and fruit pits to sprout). To be on the safe side, don’t compost anything that you absolutely, positively don’t want springing up elsewhere in your garden.

And go easy on pine needles and other evergreens, which are too acidic for most garden plants except for strawberries and, of course, more evergreens.

To learn more about the science involved in composting, check out the classic "Give Peas A Chance: Organic Gardening Cartoon-Science" by Peter Barbarow, Naturegraph, $12.95, available through Amazon.comor through interlibrary loan at the .

Or look into free master-composter training from San Mateo County, and at very low cost from the Ecology Center in Berkeley. You’ll learn the basics of compost biology, how to customize your compost for various soils and crops, how to keep compost-making earthworms, and more.

If you live within the Hayward parks district and need a place to garden, the Hayward Community Gardens at 25051 Whitman Street, between Jackson Street and Harder Road, is renting plots to new members (although Hayward residents receive preference). Volunteers run the members-only garden on seven acres managed by HARD.

The cost is $125/year for a 20-by-20-foot plot, plus refundable key and cleaning deposits and five required hours of volunteer work annually. New memberships, if available, are offered after Feb. 12, the deadline for current members to renew.

For more info, drop by the garden on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., or contact John Morra at johnmorra@comcast.net or Sandy Frost atsjfrost983@gmail.com.

Finally, you don’t need to wait for your crops to grow to enjoy fresh greens. Now is also the season to pick wild greens like horseradish, which proliferates on Bay Area road sidings and hillsides.

Like all members of the radish family, including arugula and wild mustard, horseradish is recognizable by its small four-petaled flowers. Radish flowers are usually white or pink. You know it’s horseradish because the white root smells like horseradish.

Trim the root and scrub it thoroughly with a toothbrush, then grate it or pulse in a food processor and add enough oil-and-vinegar or sour cream to make it spreadable. It's then a great condiment for beef. Or add the roots and nutritious green tops to soup -- the flavor mellows with cooking.

Jennifer Courtney February 12, 2011 at 08:16 PM
This is great. For all of you who don't have the space or capability to start your own compost pile, I hope you're taking advantage of San Leandro's compost program. Free bins, free liners and free bags of compost! http://www.sanleandro.org/depts/pw/es/food.asp
The Omordha March 05, 2011 at 12:35 AM
Barbara, has anyone looked in to the impact of home composting impacting the planned revenues from recycling by WMI?

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