Saturday, March 29, 2014

Compost by the yard, for the yard

Now that spring has officially arrived, it's the time when a gardener's mind lightly turns to thoughts of compost. Being organic gardeners, or at least organic as much as possible, we rely on vast quantities of this stuff to enrich the soil in our garden beds, as well as our trees and shrubs. This year, we've also got several new plantings planned that will need compost: some additional asparagus plants in the big exposed bed at the front of the garden, and some hardy kiwi vines along the back fence. (We ended up ordering these from American Meadows, the same site where we bought the wildflower seed mix for the front yard, and we're postponing the purchase of the other landscaping plants until we see what our local nurseries can do for us.)

All these plantings require more compost than our little backyard bin can supply, so in the past, we've relied on bagged compost from stores like Home Depot. Typically, we need about eight to ten 1.5-cubic-foot bags of mixed humus and manure, in addition to the contents of our own bin, to cover all our planting zones. However, more recently, we've run up against the problem of "killer compost," which contains persistent herbicides that can keep killing plants even after they've passed through the four stomachs of a cow and then gone through the high-heat composting process. To get around this problem, we've started buying our compost early and testing each bag (as described here) to make sure it's safe to use. The problem is that (a) it's a big hassle, (b) it requires us to buy our compost a good four to six weeks ahead of planting time, and (c) we have to buy at least 50 percent more compost than we think we'll need to ensure that we have an adequate number of bags that are safe to use. (Last year, we bought a dozen bags and ended up having to discard four.)

All this got me wondering whether there might be someplace around here where we could buy some sort of certified compost that was guaranteed to be free of these persistent herbicides. My guess was that our best bet would be to try the Belle Mead Co-Op in (duh) Belle Mead. These folks gave us invaluable help last year on our patio project, delivering all the materials we needed to lay the base layer and saving us a big chunk of change by suggesting the use of stone dust rather than sand, eliminating the need for two separate deliveries. (We did have to buy some sand separately to fill in between the bricks, but we got good value out of the extra stone dust by using it in our garden paths.) It seemed likely that if anyone would have the kind of compost we needed, they would—and even if they didn't, they'd at least understand the question and be able to give us a straight answer.

I did a little poking around on their website and found that they listed several varieties of bagged compost on their price list, but none that specifically said anything about herbicide content. However, when I checked in the "bulk products" section, I saw that they had a product called "leaf compost," which we figured had to be safe because it's made strictly from leaves, rather than any kind of grass to which an herbicide might have been applies. The only problem was that, being a bulk product, it's sold by the yard—that is to say, by the cubic yard, which is 27 cubic feet. That's quite a bit more than the 12 to 15 cubic feet we generally use, and the $85 delivery fee would make it quite pricey. But, I wondered, what if we could load it ourselves and just pay for the amount that we could carry?

I called up the Co-Op to inquire, and they were quite accommodating. They said if we'd bring our own containers and do the shoveling ourselves, they'd let us take all we could carry and charge us for just half a yard. So the only question then was what to carry it in. We had the two big cardboard boxes that our new filing cabinets had come in, but we knew we couldn't fill those to the brim or they'd be too heavy to carry. So we ended up loading the car with an assortment of additional containers, including some large paper leaf bags provided by the borough (which we never use because we compost all our leaves) and several 40-pound birdseed sacks. The birdseed sacks, interestingly ended up being the easiest to work with. The cardboard boxes were reasonably easy to load but very difficult to lift and maneuver when they were even halfway full; the paper bags were somewhat easier to handle, but we had to be careful about keeping them dry because any significant contact with the wet dirt would weaken them. The birdseed sacks, by contrast, were made of tough plastic and remained fairly easy to lift even when mostly full.

On the way home, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out how buying our compost this way worked out price-wise. We estimated that the amount of compost we actually managed to squeeze into our various containers was at least the half a yard they actually charged us for, if not a bit more, and the cost was only $16.25 (before tax). By contrast, the bagged compost we used to buy at Home Depot was on sale, last time we stopped in there, at 3 bags for $10. At 1.5 cubic feet a bag, half a yard would be the equivalent of 9 bags, which would cost $30—so we paid just a little over half as much per cubic foot for the bulk compost. And actually, if you factor in the 50 percent extra we'd normally have to buy of the bagged compost, our savings per cubic foot of usable compost jump to nearly 65 percent. True, we had to do a bit of extra work to shovel it ourselves, but we saved all the work involved in testing the compost, which is a much more complicated and long-drawn-out process.

The leaf compost is lovely stuff, too, dark and fluffy, without any of the pungent aroma of the composted manure we used to get. (It doesn't smell anything like manure in its natural state, but it still has a distinct odor that permeates the car when you're carrying ten bags of it.) In fact, Brian thought carrying this stuff would, if anything, leave the car smelling cleaner than before, as the leaves absorbed any odors that might be lingering inside. When we got it all home, we stowed it in the shed (unloading the contents of the boxes into a couple of big garbage cans, which are easier to carry), where it's now ready to be used on all our veggies and other plantings. We've already spread out the first couple of bags' worth on the new flowerbed and scattered on the seeds, which we hope will take root promptly in the freshly enriched soil.

All in all, I have to say buying compost by the yard is better in just about every way than buying it by the bag. The only drawback is that we have to drive all the way to the Co-Op, half an hour away, to get it—but since our dentist is right in the same town, and since we have to go see him every March anyway, all we have to do is schedule our cleanings at a time when we can pop by the Co-Op either right before or right after. Nothing takes the sting out of learning you need two fillings like knowing that all your garden plants are well provided for.
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