If you have issues with your garden's soil, the answer to the problem is usually "compost." Whether you need to improve fertility, reduce compaction, improve water absorption-- the answer is the same-- compost, compost, compost.
We use a very simple method of composting our kitchen scraps and organic waste material from the garden here at Prairie Road. We call it the 'no work' composting method. Let the soil microbes and the worms do the work for you.
No need to build compost bins or purchase a tumbler. And no need to turn the compost or remember to tumble it. And you never have to deal with moldy, improperly aerated compost cuz ya' forgot to turn or tumble. Yuck!
It's called pit or trench composting. Dig a trench and starting dumping. It's simple! OK, I admit --it does take some work to get it set up... But once you have it, it takes very little to maintain and you'll have lots of rich compost for your garden and yard.
Start with one pit-- fill it up over the winter and the next year's garden season. Then winterize it next fall, and dig a new pit. While last year's pit is decomposing, you'll start filling your second pit. Having two (or three) pits that can be alternated provides separation between older, ready to use compost and newer uncomposted material.
The first step is to figure out where to put your compost pit. Find a low-traffic area to keep anyone from tripping or injuring themselves. Be aware that your compost pit may attract wild visitors or pets-- I've never encountered that problem but it is possible. Also, you want to find a place that is not too hot and sunny, but not too shaded and cool either. A few hours of shade and a few of sun is ideal. Make sure your pit is not at risk of routinely filling with water.
Next, decide how big you want the pit to be and mark the edges. We suggest starting smaller, say a 2 x 4 foot trench about 2 feet deep, depending on how much material you have to compost. You can always dig it wider or longer as needed. Another option is to start even smaller and just keep digging your pit bigger as needed.
If you are digging your pit in a grassy area, use a garden or tiling spade to cut the sod around the border of the pit. Then use the spade in a horizontal manner to cut under the sod and loosen it in strips. Then roll the sod, freeing as much of the soil from the roots as you roll.
Once you remove the grass, use a shovel to dig the pit two feet deep; deeper if you live in a colder zone. If this is your first pit, pile the soil you are digging next to the pit. You can use that soil in your composting efforts. More on that later. Level the bottom of the pit as much as possible to ensure water soaks in evenly.
Mark your pit so it is easily seen and so you can easily find it during summer growth and winter snows. Consider using stakes or pavers to mark the corners.
Let's start with what NOT to put in it.
Do not add any animal products-- no meat, bones, or dairy products. These will cause pest and odor problems and will attract wild critters to your pit. Waste materials from pets can contain harmful micro-organisms. And a word to the wise-- the hulls of many nuts take a long time to decompose. Black walnuts contain toxins as well. Egg shells don't decompose well and can pose a risk of salmonella.
Pit composting is cold composting as opposed to hot composting. So it doesn't heat up and reach temperatures needed to kill weed seeds or insect eggs. Be mindful of what you add to your compost pit.
Now what to put in?
Start putting your fruit and vegetable scraps, greens, coffee grounds-- basically your nitrogen-rich, carbon-rich kitchen and garden waste. Then sprinkle in a layer of dried leaves, dried grass clipping or hay (weed free!), or shredded newspaper and junk mail-- what composters refer to as 'browns'.
Next you can layer on some of the soil you dug out and piled next to your pit. Sprinkle some over your pile. This will help cover it, preventing odors and nosy critters. More importantly it has the added benefit of 'inoculating' your compost with all the microorganisms that will help to break it down quickly. So the sequence is add your greens, some browns, and some soil.
As mentioned above, you could start with a smaller pit and as you add compost and browns, just dig another shovelful of soil to layer. As your pit fills, keep digging and layering your 'green and brown' deposits with soil, while making your pit 'bigger' as you go. Your preference-- do the work upfront or use the installment plan!
Instead of using these helpful critters in vermi-compost bins, we let them do their thing in our compost pits, and they are very 'at home' in this dirt trench! They help speed up the process and we consider them a composter's helpers-- but you can choose not to use them. The soil microbes will do the work. If you do decide to use red wigglers, introducing them in the spring of the year is ideal.
The rains will keep your compost pit moist. This helps to maximize the microbial action and speed up the decomposing process. If you add red wiggler compost worms, they also need moist conditions. If you live in a dry area, you may have to sprinkle with water from time to time but for most this should not be necessary.
At the end of season, before your first snowfall, add a layer of hay on top of the compost pile. This will keep some of the heat in and provides the ideal environment for the microbes and worms to do their best work! The pile can keep working as far into the fall and early winter as possible.
As you put this year's compost pile to bed for the winter, dig a new pit and start adding! Gauge the size of pit #2 by your experience with pit #1. Too big or too small? Did you have to expand it to accommodate all of your compostables or can you shrink it down?
Pit composting is not a fast composting method. It may take a year or two, depending on your climate, before the compost is usable. While you are filling pit #2, pit #1 is working. Next summer, check to see if pit #1 is ready to use. Depending on what zone you live in and how many months the microbes (and worms) were able to be active, the compost may or may not be ready to use. If not, start pit a third pit at the end of the season and start making plans for where you want to use the compost you will harvest from pit #1!
Wanna see how we do it?
Click here to watch our companion video. We hope this will inspire you to adopt this simple method to capture and use your your kitchen scraps and garden waste to improve your garden soil; all the while keeping that valuable organic material out of the landfill! A win, win!
Our best to you,
Theresa & Dan