I’m not an expert on compost, so I’m not going to preach about hot versus cold, worms or starters, how and when to turn your piles. Instead I’m going to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a gardener who decided to try composting. She made a bin with straight wooden sides, then she bought a chipper-shredder and vowed to recycle all her garden trimmings into rich, crumbly compost.
For a little while things went reasonably well. That chipper-shredder thing was nearly impossible to manage, but she enlisted her husband to start the thing up and he seemed to enjoy feeding it pieces of the old Christmas tree. The shredded stuff was piled into the compost bin and the gardener waited. That pile sat there, and did not heat up, but it did not smell bad either, so at least one problem was avoided.
Then the gardener became more interested in other things, and she forgot about chipping and shredding and turning. She forgot about throwing things over the straight wooden sides of that compost bin, in fact she pretty much forgot about composting entirely.
Sometime the next spring she remembered, and—wonder of wonders—in spite of her neglect there was a small pile of stuff that might or might not be compost, and she put it into one of her flower beds. But it was a very small pile, considering the work that went into it, and when she thought about trying it again—gathering trimmings, dragging out the chipper-shredder, piling and turning and raking—her heart sank. So she turned her back on the whole deal and went back to pruning her roses.
Years went by. The straight wooden sides of that bin began to sag and rot as it sat empty. Alstromeria, that cursed invader, began to shoot up inside it. The gardener needed more space anyway, so one day she dismantled the old bin and used the space to grow more roses.
More years went by, and the trees in that garden grew bigger and leafier. One day the gardener noticed that an awful lot of those leaves were piling up in several places around her yard. And she remembered something she had read in Redford Redell’s book The Rose Bible. “If you’re not mulching your roses I have no hope for you.” He said that leaf mulch was good. The gardener knew that there were a couple of piles of leaves that hadn’t been moved for a whole year. She vowed to clean those up, and she did, but during the process she noticed that the stuff at the bottom looked a bit like compost. She wondered, what was the difference between mulch and compost? She thought that maybe the only difference was a year. She decided that even if this was a cheater's shortcut, it was the closest she could come to composting.
I learned a lesson from that gardener and now I don’t spend much time thinking about techniques of composting. I make crude, three-sided enclosures by bending rabbit wire around garden stakes, and I use these as holding bins for fallen leaves and grass clippings. Occasionally I throw in coffee grounds and deadheaded flowers. I don’t put in food scraps—I already have skunks and opossums, why make things worse? I just rake up some of the leaves, pile them into my wobbly wire enclosures and wait. During my periodic cleanup times I go get some of the stuff (is it compost? is it mulch? should I care?) and I spread it around my plants or over any bare areas that might grow weeds. The garden looks better, the plants seem to like it, and the weeds don’t. Maybe some day I’ll get more serious about composting, but for now this system works.
Be careful when raking up leaves!