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Making Compost my Mother's Way
By Butch Mitchell

Growing up on a Southern Ohio farm I often watched my mother preform her miracles in the garden. I especially remember her compost ritual, she would dance around the compost, adding this, shaking that. The result was black crumbly earth, ready for the garden. Everyone said my mother had a green thumb, but she told me it takes black fingers to have a green thumb.

My mother had her special compost spots - like under the lilac bush. She knew compost works best in a warm moist environment. We always had a compost bucket on the porch to store food wastes (no meat scraps) for composting. She would start a pile with dry winter stalks and leaves. Then she would carefully layer the pile with food waste, grass trimmings, leaves, garden thinnings, manure, some old compost or dirt and sometimes a little lime from the bucket next to the out house. The piles were about three feet high.

She started new piles in the fall and winter. During the winter microbes that decay compost are not very active. But the moist conditions along with the freezing and thawing soften the course materials. Food wastes dissolve down into the course material. Manure helps fuel the composting process when the weather warms. Mother said she was seeding the pile with the old compost or dirt since they contain the necessary composting organisms

With warmer spring temperatures and rains, compost heats up and the microbes use up the most readily available nutrients and moisture. Adding fresh yard and garden wastes at this time keeps the pile working.

My mother was careful to mix the piles, claiming it was like making soup, you add the ingredients and stir until everything eventually blends together. Mixing moves the fresh succulent materials around the drier and courser winter trash. It leads to a more uniform, finished compost.

Mother had a few rules: A smelly pile is to wet and needs more course material and more regular mixing. A pile that is to dry will have a dry center and needs more moisture, green clippings or a few shovel fulls of moist dirt. She knew that the composting organisms worked best when the pile was not to wet or dry. It has the feel of a good pie crust, she explained. And she has made enough compost and pie crusts to know when it feels right.

I left the farm to study agriculture, spent several years in graduate school, and now teach Ag. in Washington County. But I still make compost like my mother's.