If you've ever been to visit me in the summer, chances are I've taken you behind my black louvered door fence, and shown you my compost boxes. I may have even encouraged you to put your hand into a working pile of compost, to feel the heat of the microorganisms that are hard at work turning all the vegetable matter into wonderful, rich humus. As I mentioned in my blog; A short course in composting; when the process is done, I then sift it all to get a nice fine product to add to my garden. This sifting is however, a rather time and labour intensive affair, and I have been looking into ways of simplifying this process. I discovered a wonderful book called, The complete compost gardening guide, and it lays out some wonderfully simple techniques for composting. Many of which don't even require boxes, and reduce or eliminate the need for turning.
I had great success last year with building a "grow heap", reaping a bounty of various winter squashes. I had always had struggles getting pumpkins or winter squash to grow in my wonderful raised boxes. These are terrific for tomatoes and zucchini, and I will continue to grow those there. But my success with the grow heap has probably changed my gardening habits for ever. It has an added benefit that you don't have to do any ground prep under the pile that you build, and can in fact prepare your soil for other uses latter. It also can dramatically improve hard or poor soil. I built a long row for my grow heap last year, on sandy soil, where I plan to plant a lilac hedge in the future.
Here's how to build it. Start by laying down newspaper or cardboard over the area you want to grow your vegetables or flowers. (Some vegetables are better suited to this style of gardening than others. Root vegetables, may not do as well.) You can do this right over top of grass, without doing any preliminary digging. The cardboard suffocates the grass and weeds, and can actually create an environment that will attract worms and other beneficial insects like beetles and centipedes. On top of the cardboard, start layering your compostable materials. (Again you can refer to my earlier blog about building a compost pile.) I used straw and hay that I pulled out of my sheep shed, but old leaves, cornstalks, dried up plant matter from your flower and vegetable beds work just fine. If you can get your hands on animal manures,(excluding dog dodo), do so. Sheep manure really is best. Sheep use the ammonia that is normally in most manures, in their wool production, so it doesn't need any "sitting" time. However, this method can work with most manures because it sits and decomposes for some time before tender roots get to those parts. Make sure to water this dry "brown " layer, then layer in your "green" stuffs on top of this. This can be kitchen waste, fresh green garden waste like grass clippings, and even the manures. Alternate these layers until you have a good two foot high pile. I also like to run a soaker hose in the pile after the first layer. That way I can easily water it latter, on dry summer days, right where the roots are at.
Once you have your rows, or piles built, dig out, or pat down small areas about the size of your fist, and fill these with gardening or potting soil. This is where you will plant your seeds, and get them to germinate. Make sure to water these diligently, as seeds need good moisture to get started and take hold. You shouldn't have too many issues with drowning them, because all of the "heap" material should allow for good drainage, and at the same time hold moisture in.
I'm really excited to get started with this method this year. I have a large area I've been wanting to set up for vegetable gardening for several years now. But it's consumed by weeds, and the task of dealing with that has been overwhelming and prohibitive. This year, I believe I can finally start to tackle it. I will start by having my sheep graze down the area, as soon as the snow is gone and new shoots start to appear. They can trample down all the old stuff, and add their fertilization process. Then I will start to lay down my rows of cardboard, about 2 feet wide, with 2 feet between rows. (I do have a stock pile of cardboard, and will be canvasing for old newspapers.) I will plant beans, and squash, corn, and quinoa; cucumbers, with which I've had no luck so far, peas and even potatoes. After the success with the squash last year, I'm hoping for miracles this year.