Mystery author Edith Maxwell knows a lot about dirt, especially the stuff that grows plants. What did you think we were talking about?
Granted, Edith – who learned to drive in the parking lot at the Santa Anita Racecourse — may know some “good dirt,” too, but she’s not telling, not here anyway. However, she will be telling us what natural substance helps make the best dirt for growing plants. A big clue? It involves this blog’s favorite animal.
BTW, Edith is willing to give away a copy of her first book in the series A TINE TO LIVE, A TINE TO DIE to a lucky commenter who posts by 12 am EDT, Tuesday, 5/27/14. This contest is restricted to readers in the continental US due to shipping charges. (Ed. note: Alas, the deadline for the giveaway has passed. A big “thank you” to all who commented! However, even without the contest, keep reading to find out how easy compost is to make.)
Now, take it away, Edith!
Thanks for having me over, Rhonda! I used to be an organic farmer in northeastern Massachusetts, and now I write a murder mystery series set on an organic farm.
Within the world of certified organic farms, composting is key. Creating a good compost and working it into the soil adds nutrients, organic material, and a balance of micro organisms. Soil with plenty of compost in it fosters beneficial insects and disease resistance as well as healthy water management.
I wanted to get composting right, so I studied the ratio of ingredients, how big a pile should be, how often to turn it, and more.
What is compost anyway?
Good compost is a mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and air.
One aspect of the ratio is to have the right mix of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Green stuff (a technical term, you know) can be fresh grass clippings, pulled green plants, kitchen waste, anything fresh. Brown stuff is dried leaves, hay, anything dried. Layer those two kinds of materials with a sprinkle of water and soil on every layer, and aerobic decomposition starts in.
Compost needs to achieve between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off weed seeds and harmful organisms. Once it starts to cook, you can turn it every three days if you have the time and energy and it will be ready to go into a growing bed in a couple of weeks. You can stick your hand in the middle of the pile and actually feel the heat. Worms will take up residence and help to break down the mix.
Where horses come in
The best high-nitrogen green stuff is fresh manure from a vegetarian animal. When I was farming, it was easy to find a horse stable that would load up the back of our little pickup truck with manure and bedding. Half the time, it was already starting to cook.
I now have a small home garden and last year I didn’t get around to looking up some horse manure. I noticed that my compost never really heated up and I’ll certainly be finding a source this year.
Horse manure does tend to have a lot of weed seeds, so if the compost doesn’t heat up enough, you can end up introducing weeds to the garden, not what you really want.
Cow, turkey, or chicken manure works, but cow manure tends to be very heavy, and fowl manure can be way too hot. In my pre-farming days, I bought a bag of dried chicken manure and spread it directly on my garden. Oops. The excess of nitrogen burned my seedlings.
The optimal size of a pile is about three feet cubed, or a three-foot-diameter ring of wire, filled up. The pile reduces in size as it cooks down. If you don’t turn it, it eventually breaks down, but forking it over into another ring, bin, or pile adds more air and lets you moisten the layers again.
The compost is finished when the original material has been transformed into a uniform, dark brown, crumbly product with a pleasant, earthy aroma. There may be a few chunks of woody material left; these can be screened out and put back into a new pile. Compost is essential for a good garlic crop and can even go into a homemade potting soil.
Farmers love horse barns. If you own one, see if you can reach out to local gardeners and farmers and set up a collaborative composting venture.
Hey, readers, do you make compost? Successes? Failures? Or would you rather not see where your coffee grounds and eggshells end up? We’d love to hear from you! Add your comments below.
Edith’s next mystery in the series has something to do with dirt
In ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part (Kensington, May 2014), the produce is local – and so is the crime – when long-simmering tensions lead to murder following a festive dinner on Cam Flaherty’s farm. It’ll take a sleuth who knows the lay of the land to catch this killer. But no one ever said Cam wasn’t willing to get her hands dirty.
Former organic farmer Edith Maxwell writes the Local Foods Mysteries about farmer Cam Flaherty, a Locavore Club, and locally sourced murder (Kensington Publishing). She also writes the Speaking of Mystery series (Barking Rain Press, written as Tace Baker), which features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Edith holds a PhD in linguistics and is a long-time Quaker. She also writes award-winning short crime fiction. A technical writer and fourth-generation Californian, she lives north of Boston with her beau, three cats, and an impressive array of garden statuary.