Pit composting: so easy

The soil in my garden is clay.

Start turning it to put in a garden bed, and it looks like you’re getting ready to build an adobe home. It’s only redeeming feature is that it’s also incredibly rocky, which keep the soil from packing so tight water can’t drain.

My soil needs some serious amending.

I knew this going into the growing season. But I didn’t realize just how much amending would be needed until I got started. And began learning what really good soil looks like.

The plan of action has been building raised beds and filling them with a 1:1 mixture of dirt from the renovated workshop floor and leaf mulch. Then mixing in organic fertilizer.

I’ve accomplished this and filled the beds with tomato, pepper and eggplant transplants. They all appear to be doing fine so far.

However, I’ve resolved myself to the fact that the garden is going to be an experiment.

My homemade soil mix is not perfect. It’s just a step up from the clay it’s on top of. The leaf mulch provides much need firth: “fluff” in the soil that allows for drainage, aeration and room for the roots to grow. It keeps the clay from packing together. Leaf mulch does not provide any nutrients, which is why I added the fertilizer.

I don’t know if the raised beds are going to work. I don’t know if they will produce the bountiful tomato crop I’m seeking.

It is, however, a step in the right direction. And the direction is this: building quality soil in my garden.

There are days when I dream of covering the entire 1,500 square feet of garden space in a thick foot of compost and then rototilling it into perfection. Of course, then you run into small, nagging considerations such as cost, time, energy, practicality and cost.

And, as with all my projects, I always bump up again this notion of working with what I have.

Improving my soil is going to take time. There’s just no getting around it.

So here’s the big epiphany I had not too long after accepting the garden-as-experiment: instead of making (or buying) compost and then tilling it into the soil, why not compost directly in the soil itself? Why not actually save myself some time, energy and effort?

Hello, pit composting.
* Dig foot-deep, foot-wide hole.
* Place compostable waste in hole.
* Cover hole with dirt when full.
* Let the earth, worms, microbes and other natural juices do their thing.

Credit for this ah-ha moment goes to my friend’s father, a master gardener. While emailing back and forth about plans for the raised beds, he briefly mentioned his own trench composting: “We bury the green kitchen waste by trench in the vegetable garden accumulating in a 6 gallon can for later bury.”

Which got me reading and scheming about in-ground composting.

Pit composting is the most basic form of composting. However, I’m being thoughtful about where I dig the holes and which sections I amend by this approach. I don’t want to improve the soil in the most-shady, least-used areas.

I’ve started the pit composting around my one rhubarb plant. I received this rhubarb last year as a transplant of a transplant. And pretty much gave it up for lost not too long after getting it in the ground. Its leaves were quickly riddled with holes and the stems covered with ants; it looked beaten.

But this year the plant is back, without any care or attention on my part. I was working in the garden one day and turned around to see this big, leafy something staring me in the face. “Holy crap. That’s rhubarb.”

Because the rhubarb is showing potential in this section of the garden — and I have the raised beds already set up for the other vegetables — I decided to systematically start the pit composting here. With the idea that I will add more rhubarb.

The funny thing about pit composting in a garden space this big is how little waste I seem to produce. When you’re dumping waste in garbage cans and compost piles, they seem to fill up quickly; I feel like I should try to reduce my output. But every time I dump my kitchen waste in the pit, I look around the garden and think, “I wonder if there’s any way I can make more waste to compost…”

Like I said: improving the soil in my garden will take time.

Additional Info:
NYC Recycles. Trench Composting. Retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_other_trench.shtml

University of Illinois Extension. Composting for the Homeowner. Retrieved from http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/

Vanderlinden, C. Why You Should Compost in Trenches. Retrieved from http://organicgardening.about.com/od/compost/a/trenchcompost.htm

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