November 2, 2010

The Gift

I have been spending the last warmish days of this season chasing voles and spreading compost.  I have tons and tons of compost, but I didn't make it.  My brother in law did.

finished compost in rotating tumbler
He was the one who over the years put in all the work of raking the leaves in his yard, shuffling kitchen scraps out to the back of the back yard, turning, forking, tending and moving the stuff.  He has a huge barrel, a three-bin system, some more buckets, a pit, and a tall rotating metal drum contraption, all of them filled with beautiful crumbly finished compost.

I don't do that.  I throw garden debris on a pile in the weedy meadow out back, and I toss kitchen scraps on when it's not too rainy or too hot or too dark or too inconvenient to trudge out there.

My lack of effort is actually called hugelkultur, a way of composting that in my case is the height of indifference and laziness, but in agriculture is considered a permaculture approach to building raised beds.  Hugelkultur is "mound composting" including woody waste like branches and tree prunings.  

Hugelkultur windrow in my backyard
 It's supposed to be built in a big hole that you dig, and then over time the mound decays and sinks somewhat into the hole, creating a rich bed of garden soil.  It isn't meant to be moved or to be spread around the gardens, though.  It is meant to decompose in place, creating a bed some day right where you threw all your garden scraps.

My hugelkultur is just a pile of vegetative garbage sitting there on top of the ground in a long curving windrow, doing nature's work of breaking down very gradually.  It's slow composting.
A good source for information on this method is in the book Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway.  There are also lots of sources of information from bloggers and on garden sites. 

How do the two methods compare --- my hugelkultur versus my brother in law's turned and tended compost?   My pile looks like what it is: decomposing yard trash.  His compost looks like what gardeners covet: black gold.

He had so much and he wanted me to take it.  He will not have another garden, and he knows mine is a new work in progress.  His pride in the stuff he had created was evident, and his insistence on giving it to someone who would appreciate it was touching.

So Jim and I showed up one day this fall and shoveled out the contents of the cans and bins and buckets into heavy plastic contractor bags which we then could not lift.  We don't have a truck, and all this bounty weighed a ton.  No, maybe a couple tons.  Perhaps more.  All in individual plastic bags.

We dragged and wrestled the bags to the car, wiggled and shoved them into the back, and then drove home with the bumper awfully close to the road as the sheer tonnage of all that black gold weighed us down.  Getting them out of the car at home was another circus.  Jim is still in pain.

But what a gift.

The greatest legacy from a gardener ending his garden is not a special plant or a cutting or a seedling, but dozens of big unwieldy garbage bags full of dirt and rotted food.

How utterly beautiful.


  1. You were blessed with black gold. What luck to get this haul. I do a simple compost pile. It gets piled upon by garden debris and occasionally turned. There is never enough to spread on all of my garden beds but it does afford some good compost to help get new plants going. I can fill a hole here and there where Luna decides there needs to be a hole and I disagree. What luck to get this gift just as you start a new garden.

  2. oh my goodness, what a gift indeed! What I wouldn't give for some free compost. In my new garden thus far I have a large double bin (constructed by hubby) and two 'junk piles' for lack of a better definition. Basically they are the bin overflow. Who knew compost could take up so much time and space?

  3. How wonderful to have a brother in law with a surplus of black gold and willing to share it as well. I was always an indifferent composter, but these days I am more of a believer, so I have been trying a bit harder.

  4. My husband is like your brother. I call him the compost king (fussy about the contents, always turning it, checking the temperature) while I'm like you. I have a pile I throw things on and have to convince him not to take it to the dump. I will admit his compost is better but my way takes a lot less time and effort.

  5. Hmmp, so glad to know there is a name for what I have...a pile of decomposing garden clippings thrown behind the fence...hugelkultur. It sounds so efficient and smart! I love gardening blogs! You learn so much.

  6. I don't think there's a better gift for a gardener ... other than, perhaps, a long-wished-for plant! What a wonderful gift.

    That brother-in-law of yours is worth his weight in gold! I wish I knew someone who had such a lovely surprise.

    I like the sound of 'hugelkultur'! Does it work on bedrock? Lol, I have lots of that everywhere in my garden ... where I'd rather have garden beds.

  7. Lisa,there is never enough compost for the garden, no matter how much you make!

    Marguerite, I have seen on your blog the two bins your hubby made and they look great and useful... kind of like him I suppose?

    Jennifer, I too have been trying to get kitchen waste out to the pile more often.

    Missy, it's a balance between good crumbly compost that takes effort and the easy way that doesn't :)

    Whimsical Gardener, doesn't the simplest thing sound more official with a big name? Even better if it's Latin or foreign sounding.

    Bernie, I think hugelkultur is exactly what would work for you over bedrock. It's supposed to build soil. Try it!

  8. Hugelkultur! So that's the name for it. I've been doing this for years, but had no idea there was a name for it, much less a book written about it! Behind our house was an enormous gap in a hillside, where great trees were uprooted in our 1990 tornado. Ever since, we have been throwing all our yard scraps down into the gulf. The stuff slowly rots as I add new to the pile. I noticed for the first time this year that the gulf is almost completely gone. So it's taken 20 years of hugelkulture to rebuild a hillside!

  9. Deborah, It took 20 years but it worked! Nature restores and rebuilds over time, and you helped. Now you even have a name for it :)

  10. I wish I had a BIL who was that nice and useful! Like you I dump stuff that I want to turn into compost in the ground (without digging a hole first) and then the earthworms deal with it. Unfortunately we sometimes get stinkhorn fungus too if there's a lot of layers. Yuck.

    We had compost bins at one time and ended up with nadda. We'd put stuff in there and it would eventually just disappear. I think the nearby trees took it.

  11. sweetbay, I can't believe your trees up and stole your compost! But some thief was getting it, you usually do get rotted something out of a pile of scraps.

  12. Hey! thanks for the link, here! Lucky you to get all that free compost!


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