I was weeding the lettuce patch after a rain today and saw a few very odd-looking weeds that were really taking off. They didn’t look like the geraniums or wild lettuce or thistles or anything else I usually get in the veggie beds, but there were several of them all in the same area. Imagine my surprise when I pulled them up!
I don’t believe we ever planted these, and the previous owner put their potatoes in a different bed, so I guess this happened somehow when I was building up the beds and shifting some dirt around. Sometimes mistakes can be OK.
Here on Pender Island, many people are looking to reduce the amount of garbage they produce, partially because many of us love nature and partially because we have no municipal garbage collection service. In our house it’s a bit of both. We have always composted and recycled where we could, but now that we have no garbage collection and plenty of space for compost bins, I’m turning it into an extreme sport. My primary motivations are to minimize the amount of waste that ends up in the trash and maximize the amount of fertility I return to the soil.
The typical composting advice that comes with your typical suburban black bin or urban green bin comes with a very restrictive list of rules about what can go into the bin and why. This may make sense if you are in an apartment and your compost is going to be collected by city workers who aren’t equipped to handle the gross stuff. If you are a suburban gardener who is looking for fast and easy compost, then keeping things like meat scraps out will help you avoid dealing with rats, and turning your compost regularly does tend to help it decompose faster.
However, like most types of systems, there are really very few hard-and-fast rules to setting up a compost system. If you’re aging your own compost, these guidelines make sense if your goal is to produce a moderate amount of compost quickly for a small garden. That’s not my goal, so (spoiler) I’m not following them.
There is a small but growing movement of people who are starting to experiment with alternate methods of composting and pushing the limits on what can be composted in the systems that we already have. Some of these folks have always been around, but with the recent resurgence of interest in self-sufficiency, more people are starting to give it a try, if for no other reason than to give their garden a much-needed boost.
Bruce Darrell of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Tipperary is the producer of the RED Gardens series, in which he grows several different types of food garden (such as the no-dig and intensive methods) to try to compare their relative yields as well as the number of hours required to maintain them. One of his other experiments, the “No Rules Compost“, is how he manages to generate enough compost to maintain the half-dozen or so gardens that he manages. The “No Rules Compost” actually has one rule: if it was recently alive, it can go in the bin, and “recent” is relative (as things like paper are OK). He has been using this method for several growing seasons now and has reported no issue with crop failure or disease, only an issue with rats, and he makes a strong case for why those rats would be more difficult to deal with if they were not attracted to his compost, since they’re attracted to his garden regardless and he can rig up his bin to serve as a massive rat trap. At this point, his pest management strategy actively relies on attracting rats to the bin.
Bruce is not alone in this “anything goes” composting strategy; Extreme Composting by permaculturist David the Good offers a similar perspective on what can be composted, along with detailed tips and ideas on how to avoid some of the work and the “ick” factor. For example, if you can’t deal with the idea of pests getting into your old meat scraps, you can always just dig a hole and bury it. If buried correctly this will mask the smell from both you and the rats, so they don’t even know it’s there. Maybe this won’t work if you live in an area with other pests, or a much worse rat problem (as rats can dig a bit), but it works for David the Good and it also works for me — though with my shallow Gulf Island soil, I can never dig as deep as I’d like and top off each hole with a piece of old board and a couple rocks to weigh it down. The beautiful thing about composting is that it’s actually very simple and versatile, so if this doesn’t work for you, there’s always something else you can try.
Vermiculture (or worm binning) is another form of composting where you’re repeatedly told not to put meat in the bin, but again, if you have a large and healthy worm bin, there is no issue in feeding them meat scraps in moderation. They will clean the bones off for you, at which point you can dry them and grind them up for bone meal in the garden. Free bone meal sounds like a good deal to me.
Humanure is another intriguing development in the world of extreme composting and while I’m not sure I’m quite ready to take that leap myself, I can’t deny that every septic field I’ve looked at in the middle of a dry BC summer has been yellow-brown with bright green grass where the septic is laid.
So… for the past year, my partner and I have been going the “compost (almost) everything” route. When we moved in around this time last year, there was 1 black bin with a small amount of uncomposted material on the bottom. A year later we had two entirely filled black bins plus an overflow compost pile in the back yard. Surprisingly to me, despite following none of the rules, the bottom two feet of bin 1 was filled with rich, black, nearly-finished compost. The only uncomposted material in the bottom of this bin were some cedar roots, so in the future my “anything goes” composting will be an “anything goes but the cedar” bin.
This past week, rather than build or buy more bins to contain more compost, I sorted out our yard waste “burn pile” (which we have never burned) into cedar branches and everything else, which included a bunch of weeds, a couple small pine trees, and woody clippings from a variety of different bushes and trees. I dug a shallow trench in the backyard and layered the big pieces first, then the little pieces, then the compost, so that the new layers would fall and fill down into the gaps of the previous layers. Then I covered the whole mess with a layer of topsoil and seeded it with a bee and butterfly wildflower mix. The end result is a mini-hugelkultur bed that will hide our unsightly decomposables while they work, and hopefully attract pollinators into our garden. The wildflower roots should help prevent the pile from eroding away down the slope of our backyard.
And of course, we get to use our compost bins again!
One of the things I love about our Pender house is that the previous owners left so much stuff behind, giving us ample opportunity to experiment with all sorts of DIY skills without fear. Every new skill teaches you a new facet of how the little bits and pieces of our world are assembled. It is incredible, to me, to be able to look at a thing and begin to understand how it was put together, why it was put together that way, and what that may say about its creators.
Ask ten different people to create an herb garden, with no further instructions, and you’ll get 10 wildly different results, all of which will be interesting for what they imply about the person who made it. The beautifully-finished cedar staircase planter filled with multiple copies of the same four basic herbs could be the work of someone who enjoys the aesthetics or the carpentry more than the gardening and cooking, while the rough pallet-hack planter filled with rare plants might indicate a gardener or a chef who’s either impatient or a carpentry novice.
It can be difficult to tell, sometimes, whether an aspect of the piece is rough because the creator was inexperienced or they simply didn’t care, unless you yourself are an expert in that field. This is true for nearly any skill, I think.
Some skills are great for random tinkering and that should be encouraged. Other skills shouldn’t be practiced “live” except by those who are already trained up to a certain level of competence, because a wrong step could cause great harm to yourself or others. There is a reason that dog grooming classes don’t practice on dummy dogs with nylon hair, that hair salon schools allow students to (eventually) cut hair in class, and that surgeons are only permitted to cut into a live patient after extensive training.
I have more thoughts about this but it’s late and I’m still percolating.
I can’t believe it’s been over 16 months since the last post… it’s been a very busy year and a half. Some updates based on my current About (which is soon to change):
- My name is still Meg!
- I am now 28!
- I have moved from Vancouver, BC to beautiful Pender Island, BC.
- I have pivoted from the 3D pipeline and game industries back into my original love, web development. But I do still dabble in Unity now and then.
- Partially as a result of moving to Pender, I now have a much more extensive and successful garden than I used to. But there is always room for another project!
- I got back into Facebook, used it for awhile, remembered why I didn’t like Facebook, and finally deleted it permanently.
- Our beautiful old man cat, Heathcliff, passed away a few months after our move. We buried him in the back yard, in the kind of grassy, shady spot that he loved to laze in back when he was still an outdoor cat (before my time!).
- We welcomed several new arrivals into our home, all rescues. Our dog, Charles, was adopted through the Burnaby SPCA and our three kittens were adopted through my partner’s dad, who was chosen by a pregnant cat to be her new human. We offered to take any of the “leftovers” and are now the proud roommates of three black beauties, all slightly different in looks and very different in personality.
I hope to post more soon. I like to share things about my life and what I’m working on sometimes, but the current state of social media makes me uneasy, so resurrecting the blog seems like the thing to do. I am thinking of adding a wider mix of topics since my interests have expanded so much since the last time I ran this blog, as well as some shorter posts just to keep in the habit of writing.