Raccoons love unprotected compost heaps. (Black Press Media stock image)

Raccoons love unprotected compost heaps. (Black Press Media stock image)

Mary Lowther column: A compost buffet and some uninvited guests

The first thing David built was a trio of industrial sized compost bins

By Mary Lowther

There are as many methods of composting as there are opinions on the internet, but most of them are more politely explained. The best I have seen was in an alleyway garden on municipal land in Victoria: unused space a neighbour turned into a veritable Eden. She built a three bin system made of wooden slats lined with half-inch mesh wire, even the lid, so rodents couldn’t get in. The prudent gardener needs to defend her future soil from unwelcome guests.

After we enclosed an acre for gardening the first thing David built was a trio of industrial sized compost bins, which he then filled with the collected leaves of all our neighbours, a pile from the park and bags of horse and chicken manure provided by willing acquaintances. In short, he created a buffet for every rodent in the nearby woods, and there are a lot of them. This poses a problem which has not been solved by our dog Monkey, who we are assured was bred to chase rats, badgers and other malefactors but appears to be interested mostly in canned tuna. He did bark at an elk once, but after it chased him across the street and onto our porch he lost his voice. Our current cat is an extremely avid hunter, but before he was rescued he had been declawed, which certainly limits his effectiveness.

I delegated this problem to David, who set out traps and caught a rat on three consecutive days until the local fauna evidently lost their taste for cheddar, but just because we aren’t seeing any doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Someone simply has to apply himself more; making the heap difficult for varmints and malefactors to access is a priority, and just because the traps haven’t caught anything for a month doesn’t mean they’re gone. Then there are the raccoons, voracious, determined and often more clever than many registered voters. If you intend to compost your kitchen scraps you will have to deal with them.

Long ago, when the Earth was green and David had not yet been deemed trainable, he was awakened from his slumber by a veritable cacophony, a combination of howls, hoots and bellows with a soupcon of discordant grunting reminiscent of the Opposition benches during Question Period. Since the Legislature was not in session, he decided to step outside to discover the source of the noise, but the second he walked onto his deck there was total silence. Not a cricket could be heard.

Looking down the street, he saw nothing. He heard nothing. Then he looked up, up into the lovely plum trees above him to see a dozen (at least) pairs of raccoon eyes shining in the porch light and staring directly at him! David made the wise decision to withdraw, having disturbed a party without an invitation. The hellish chorus resumed unabated, and in the morning nothing remained of the plums that can be tastefully mentioned. This serves to demonstrate that raccoons often work together, and it takes preparation to repel their attacks. Once the rains subside David is planning to spray his heap with a cayenne solution.

Gardeners look at compost as gold, worth the effort it takes to make and the trouble it takes to protect. Some experts recommend drumlike containers that can be turned frequently to make compost in a hurry. I tried that; bought a steel-cutting drill and an empty steel barrel, cut out a door and made a stand for it. This was a lot more work than the book let on! I half filled it with vegetation and faithfully turned it every day for a month and ended up with about two litres of compost, after all that work. In the interim I had learned that when composting occurs at such an accelerated rate, much of the nitrogen that would have been captured by organisms in the heap off-gases as ammonia so one doesn’t get nearly the bang for the buck. Back I went to the drawing board.

Nowadays I don’t even turn my heap at all and just let nature do the work. I’ve got three bins: I add vegetable scraps and other amendments in layers as it builds up; clay, soft rock phosphate and garden soil. When it’s full, I let it sit for a year and start filling up a second bin and when that’s full, I start on the third bin, by which time the first one will have aged about a year so I can start using it. When I use some for potting soil, I sift it, but don’t bother for the garden as it breaks down further there anyway.

I put in cooked leftovers, weeds even when they’ve gone to seed, vegetation, lawn clippings, leaves and egg shells. The heap gets so hot that the seeds get cooked anyway so I don’t worry about that. My boxes are getting old and the wood is starting to rot, so I hope David’s fine new facility is a success. A lot depends on whether our uninvited guests like spicy food.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

Columngardening

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