Compost seems incredibly overpriced – whether you buy it by the cubic foot or yard it ends up costing a lot of money. And that’s an annual cost, not a one-time thing. Our yard is too small to realize any significant savings from bulk purchase; yet it’s big enough to need much more compost than we can produce on-site. This got me thinking about all of the ways we’re currently making compost and how we might do better.
- cold compost pile: 2 cubic yard bins yield about 1/2 yard of finished compost annually
- leaf bins: about 3 cubic yards; we add leaves to our compost bins, use them as worm bedding, for mulch, to cover overwintering plants and root crops, … it’s really versatile stuff
- worm bins: we currently have 2 decent sized bins; these provide all the compost tea you could desire, but only a couple cubic feet of compost.
- chop and drop: mainly comfrey; the amount is too small to be measured in cubic feet
- cover crops: rye, barley, clover, nasturtium, mache – we’ve not been very consistent in cover-cropping, so the benefit in terms of compost has been small
- Tap into suitable local streams of organic waste: tossed produce from our grocery store, grounds from our local coffee shop, our neighbors’ yard waste. There’s plenty of stuff around, it just requires a bit of time and effort to get it.
The limiter is our compost bin capacity which we can’t really expand. The alternative would be to bury compostables and grow suitable veggies on top; we’ve shied away from that for fear of attracting rats or raccoons to our yard.
- Grow more cover crops / green manure: comfrey, clover, buckwheat, vetch. These benefit the soil as they’re growing and can be simply chopped into the soil when they’re done. The limiter here is available space; but we still have potential by being more diligent about cover cropping empty space and also by inter-planting. Finally, we can grow more comfrey on our gardenshare patch.
- Manure: horse manure is available free of charge for pick-up. Unfortunately we don’t have the right vehicle for hauling manure. Chicken manure is available from backyard coops in our neighborhood – that seems worth looking into. The downside to manure is that it usually needs to be composted before it can be applied to the garden.
It’s really hard to have a self-contained vegetable garden that does not rely on external inputs. It’s possible, if you have lots of space you can devote to growing compostables and rotating your veggie beds – but in the city that is not usually the case. Animals can be a significant source of nutrients in a garden – but our yard just isn’t suitable for livestock of any kind (other than bees).
What to do? I think the answer for us is simply to be content with a slightly reduced yield. This is, after all, just a fun and educational pastime, not our livelihood. We appreciate the fresh garden produce, but we aren’t dependent on it. We’ll continue experimenting with various composting methods and green manure. We’ll be content knowing nothing is going to waste in our garden. And we’ll keep our dollars instead of spending them on compost.