Please don’t use garden tools during thunderstorms.

29 03 2011

I realize that this should be common sense and that a directive ought not be necessary. Perhaps the infamous Darwin Awards crossed your mind when you read it, or maybe you’re expecting a horrific recounting of a farm tragedy. This blog is neither, so let me re-iterate:

Do NOT use garden tools during thunderstorms.

Now, you would think that gardeners would enjoy a rainy day off during the madness of spring lawn and garden work. Surely there must be laundry piling up, dust on the baseboards, and windows wanting washed. Perhaps the cupboards are bare and a trip to town for provisions is in order. A late lunch with a friend? A call to your sister? Wrapping up the fantastic book you’ve been working on? (“Of Flowers and a Village” a book of letters by Wilfrid Blunt, by the way. A real page turner!) These are all acceptable rainy day activities, and there are surely thousands more that don’t require the muddying of muck boots.

I was happy for the break from seedling duty–I’ve been potting up all sorts of things for the past two weeks: Eggplant, Fennel, Celeriac, Kale, more varieties of Tomatoes than I care to count. I’m particularly grateful for the respite from the Basil, which I never fail to over-sow in my seed starting trays. Current Baby Basil Count? 672. 6 different kinds. Pesto, anyone?

One thing I’ve learned at Meadowcreek is that there’s always more to do in a day than hours of sunlight. Slowly but surely I’m working out some inefficiencies in my daily routine–experiential learning, I think they call it. And that’s how I came to love building compost piles in the rain.

Technically, it’s a job that doesn’t require sunlight or low humidity, so it makes sense to do it on a wet day. I have a Honey-Do list a mile long for those dry, sunny days, and I’ve learned the hard way that laying tile and painting walls just doesn’t work so well when it’s raining. But, mostly, I build my piles in the rain because I’m lazy (err…rather, it’s more energy and time efficient).

I’ve recently changed the way I compost: I make refuse lasagna and just let it bake. For years I’d done the “throw everything into a bin, turn, and water” method, and it worked just fine. But as I’ve become more interested in BioIntensive gardening (a la the Ecology Action group), I’ve made a few changes. Starting with eliminating the Turn and Water steps.

Basically, here is how I build my piles:

I build a bin out of wood for mine, but you can use the framework you prefer as long as it’s at least 3’x3’x3′ to allow for adequate heat in the piles. 4′ is better, and I build my piles 8′ wide, 4′ deep, and 4′ high.

Start by using a pitchfork to loosen the ground where your pile will be.

If you have any cardboard boxes, branches, or twigs that you want to compost, make them your first layer as they take longer to decompose. Then put a layer of soil or existing compost over this layer.

From this point on, you’ll add items to your compost ACCORDING TO WEIGHT not volume. Often, your green layer will be more dense than your brown layer, and soil can be more dense than both. Here is the order in which you will add the materials:

Brown Layer
Green Layer
Soil Layer

You will want to make sure that you keep the pile evenly moist as you build it.

Your brown layer will provide the pile with carbon, which fuels the micro-organisms that break down the waste. “Brown” items include fall leaves, hay, straw, shredded paper (I love turning old bills and junk mail into dirt!), ashes from your fireplace or wood stove, and sawdust.

The green layer provides nitrogen. “Green” items are things like table scraps, weeds, grass clippings, poultry and livestock manures, and even coffee grounds. I also throw my bones in the compost pile, but never meat.

You always want to add your soil layer immediately after the green layer to keep odors from forming and attracting animals to your pile.

So, why do I do this in the rain? Well, that way I don’t have to worry about stopping to spray the pile down with water between layers.

I usually build my piles over time (but it’s best to get each pile built within 30 days, when possible). I end with the soil layer, and when it starts raining, I add the next brown layer (usually hay and manure from the goat barn).

I take a break for lunch to let the pile saturate (the hay also keeps the soil layer from being washed off the top of the pile in heavy rains). Then I add the green layer and soil layers, followed immediately by another layer of hay and manure. Then I’m finished with the pile until the rain stops. The rain will moisten the pile well, and without adding to your water bill! If it rains so much you start wondering whether you should build an ark, consider covering your pile with a tarp so that it doesn’t become over-saturated. Over-saturation causes the pile to cool off, thus halting decomposition.

On the next sunny day, add your green layer and soil layer. Then just wait for another rainy day to add on to your pile. You can turn your pile in about 6 weeks if you want, but just letting nature take her course results in a higher grade of compost in just a little extra time. And aren’t there things you’d rather do than turn compost?

I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll try to find someone with a video camera so that we can post an easy-to-understand demonstration of this method. Or you can visit Meadowcreek on a rainy day and see how it’s done!

Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to try composting–whether you do it in the rain or sun. But please don’t use garden tools during thunderstorms.