Natural Perspectives: Finishing touches on garden include compost bins

The Huntington Beach Community Garden at the end of Atlanta Avenue opened last Saturday with a celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony. After two years of planning and meetings, the garden is now a reality.

The week before the grand opening, the garden site was a flurry of activity. A crew from the Orange County Conservation Corps painted the old metal container that serves as our tool shed and finished building the wooden borders that line each plot.

One of the last tasks was construction of two large compost bins. The materials for the bins were purchased with a small grant from Rainbow Disposal.

Corps crew supervisor Simeon Jasso seemed to be everywhere last week, showing one group and then another how to nail boards together and saw lumber. The women on the corps' construction crew built the first three-bin compost system. The men built the second one. It did my heart good to see the young women using a cordless electric drill and hammering the staples in place to attach the hardware cloth to the frame.

Two male corps members helped Jasso cut and staple hardware cloth for the last compost system while the other two measured and sawed the boards that formed the front of each bin. The boards slide into place at the front of the bins and are easily removed when it is time to turn the compost from one bin to the next.

The cedar boards that formed the front of the middle bin were to have been cut an inch longer than the boards for the other two bins. With everyone hurrying to finish, the crew cutting the boards measured wrong and cut two center boards to the shorter length by mistake. These were corps members who had just joined the corps, and it was their first experience on the construction crew. They felt really bad about the mistake, but in the infinite scheme of things, it was a pretty minor thing.

Because we had purchased only enough materials to get the job done, we had no spare boards. But with the bulk of the garden construction now finished, our garden volunteers will be able to finish that little task.

With the first compost bin constructed, I gave a demonstration on composting to the corps members. I brought a bag of leaves from our yard and a bag of spent coffee grounds from a Starbucks. I also brought some nearly finished compost from one of my two home composters. It was loaded with earthworms and made a fine starter for the new bins. I showed the corps members how to layer dry leaves with wet coffee grounds, then more dry leaves. I added the nearly finished compost with worms on top.

One of the corps members asked me how to tell the head from the tail of an earthworm, so I put a worm in her hand. Her first response was to jerk her hand away, but worms aren't that bad. They're really kind of nice. She could see that when a worm crawls, it moves forward. That's the head end.

The earthworms will turn the leaves, coffee grounds and other things that are added to the bin into fine compost that will nourish our vegetable gardens. But then I added something else: discarded food that I fished out of the trash can.

Let me give you the back story to that. One of the garden board members, Carol Benton, brought a full lunch for the corps members on their last day with us. She made marinated and grilled tri-tip steak, grilled buns, coleslaw, potato salad and a homemade red velvet cake. A few bites of bun and cake ended up in the trash can. Knowing that such tidbits are delicacies for the earthworms, I added the bun and cake to the compost pile. The corps members were amazed when I told them that in two to three months, all of that waste will be turned into rich garden compost that can be dug into our gardens to enrich the soil.

Vic and I keep our two composters at home going all the time. All of our fruit and vegetable peels that the chickens don't eat go into the compost bins. I crush eggshells and put them in too. The important thing is to not compost meat products, fats or dairy because that might attract rats and houseflies.

The bedding straw and waste from our chickens goes into the compost bin too. I layer the food waste with either bedding straw or leaves that we collect in the fall and save in bags. Our two liquid amber trees provide us with a dozen big bags of leaves each fall. It takes all year to layer the leaves into the compost bins. I run out of leaves just when they start to fall from the tree again. It's a perfect system.

The compost from my home bins is loaded with earthworms. I feed some of the worms to our three chickens, and the compost goes into my raised garden beds in back. I didn't have to buy any commercial compost this year for the raised beds. Between my homemade compost and all the rain we've had this month, the vegetables are growing thick and lush. So far, the red cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, chard, green onions, garlic and leeks are the best I've ever grown. I think it's my homemade compost that's doing the job, because it's almost pure worm castings.

If you'd like to get into home composting but aren't sure how to start, take one of the classes at Shipley Nature Center. They'll even sell you a compost bin for 50% off. Then instead of washing food waste down the garbage disposal, you can turn it into garden gold.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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