Winter tests commitment to composting

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 4:35 p.m.

With both Marjorie and Lynne away, only the two old dogs were with me in the garden on Saturday morning. My list of weekend chores, created over coffee while waiting for the sun, began with “MT compost buckets.” Not only were the porch pails full, but most of the kitchen’s Tupperware had been brought into service as I put off this chore, waiting for a January thaw.

The compost piles, frozen to their cores, lie under thick blankets of snow at the back of the garden, 300 winding feet from the back door. The first chunk of my morning’s work was shoveling the path, an hour’s labor with the dogs at my heels, the three of us trapped in the lengthening narrow lane by walls of compacted snow 2 feet high. We were exploring ground not seen or sniffed for two months.

Proud of my new path, I carried the containers of kitchen waste to the nearest compost pile, the one that had been receiving similar deposits every week through the late summer and fall. At the end of October this bin was full, but now its contents had settled to half that size under the weight of ice and snow.

After shoveling away the cap of snow, I upended the pails and knocked out frozen masses of kitchen waste layered with old potting soil used to absorb liquids when composting was actually happening in the pail. Through the glare of sunlit ice, I recognized carrot tops, cucumber peels, and chunks of bright red tomato as fresh as the day they were added to the pail.

Using a shovel as an ax, I broke the blocks of ice into spreadable pieces, added the more recent accumulations of compostables, including a sack of sprouted potatoes left too long in the dark corner of a cabinet, and covered it all with dry shredded leaves bagged last October and stored in the basement for just such occasions.

At this point, the dogs were giving a few sun-thawed vegetable scraps on the ground a lot of attention, reminding me that the local raccoons and skunks would do the same, so I topped off the pile with 2 feet of snow, hoping to keep it all frozen until spring. I walked away, two hours after starting, thinking that this was the best a gardener can do in the middle of winter when it comes to composting.

I can think of only four ways to deal with compostable kitchen scraps in winter. You can stop composting them, adding them to the trash instead — a tough call if you are trying to stay in tune with nature. You can invest in several large pails with secure lids, accumulating the winter’s scraps and keeping them frozen until spring. You can use indoor worm bins, recycling kitchen waste to worm castings — we have one bin, but would need several more to compost all of our kitchen waste by this method. Or you can keep the path to the compost pile open.

January tests your commitment to composting. But then comes a Saturday morning warm enough to shed your coat as you shovel out the path to the compost pile, a path that winds around the garden beds, and you start to think about the plants that grew in each bed last year and what might grow in each over the coming season. The dogs romp up and down the path, impatient for you to get to the end, and you stop to catch your breath, to let the sun warm your face, to share their enthusiasm for being in the garden again.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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