My Pitiful Pile

THE REAL DIRT

November 29, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

'll throw almost anything onto the compost pile, from leaves and vegetable scraps to more unusual items: Hair. Junk mail. Lint from the clothes dryer.

In fact, there is little that is organic that I won't recycle. However, I don't do cat litter, road kills or Ross Perot campaign literature.

It's a compost pile, not a dump.

Aberrations aside, my own rule is this: If it's biodegradable, it's stock for my compost stew. Eggshells. Toenails. Used tea leaves and old T-shirts. Eventually, they'll all break down and nurture the soil.

I'm a whiz at gathering the ingredients. I just wish I was a better cook.

Good compost piles are warm and crumbly. Mine is cold and slimy. Good compost piles are "turned" weekly, with a pitchfork, to hasten decomposition. My pile hasn't been stirred in ages.

Good compost piles can produce dark brown humus in a matter of months. I've been waiting for this particular batch of compost since 1988. Another year or two should do it.

You know the stuff is cooking if it's too hot to handle: The center of a compost pile can reach a temperature of 160 degrees. Not mine, though. My compost pile is a lookout perch for Katydid the dog, who scrambles up the clammy heap to browse for birds and squirrels.

Think I'm doing something wrong?

A well-tended compost pile heats up like an oven, baking the yard scraps and destroying all leftover seeds. Not mine, though. My compost pile produced its own tomato plant, which struggled up on its own last spring and mustered a handful of cherry tomatoes before it was buried beneath an avalanche of grass clippings.

Cheers for the tomato plant. What chutzpah! Jeers for the compost pile. What a wimp.

My compost pile lacks punch, but not because of the menu. I'm using the right stuff, but in the wrong order. In my rush to complete my yard chores, I dump leaves, grass trimmings and kitchen waste on the pile helter-skelter. This is extremely poor planning. Creating a compost pile is like making pizza. There's a sequence that must be followed. You wouldn't place the dough on top of the cheese, would you?

I suspect other homeowners share my dilemma. We begin composting, usually in fall, with soaring hopes and great expectations. We build our piles of wood or wire, of brick or block. Then we set out to fill their bellies with coffee grounds, cat fur and cantaloupe rinds.

At the start, we follow the rules religiously: We water the pile and turn it regularly. We allow air to circulate inside the heap, to keep the compost from packing down solid. And we alternate layers of leaves, green matter, animal manures and soil, just as the garden texts preach.

For a while, I layered our garbage, piling it higher and higher until it resembled a gross Dagwood sandwich. Periodically I removed shovelfuls of humus from the bottom of the pile -- rich black loam peppered with stubborn bits of eggshell and banana peel -- and fed it to the garden.

Within a year, however, my methods got sloppy. Other yard chores beckoned. The novelty of composting wore off. A wet spring yielded gobs of grass clippings, which I hurriedly heaped onto the pile, creating a slimy mess.

That fall, instead of adding our maple leaves to the compost pile in carefully measured 6-inch layers, I slung whole bagfuls of them into the heap and left them there, entombed in plastic. And instead of removing the straw from the scarecrow we dressed in old clothes for Halloween, I flung the whole body into the %J compost pile, where it sprawled like a corpse and scared the bejabbers out of the dog when she climbed Mount Garbage to search for squirrels.

The pile is now 10 feet tall and growing colder. I've been told the compost will eventually decompose, and in my lifetime. Meanwhile, I'm going to start another compost pile alongside the first one, and this time I'm determined to do it right. Our daughter, Beth, has already broken ground.

She buried her pet goldfish there.

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