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The Great Compost Project: The Outside Problem

Compost Problem Solving Day – Before 9 a.m.

A photo of Shannon Saia“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I would like to go on record here as saying that I wholeheartedly believe that this is true. I have multiple reasons, but the one that comes to mind at the moment is that if you’re going to garden with any kind of seriousness, you’re going to need the information in that library to figure what the heck to do with the garden – every step of the way. Cicero’s sentiment has particular resonance for me this morning because I also believe that the following (from Mike and Nancy Bubel) is true – that experience can be translated to mean “doing it wrong the first time”.

How do I know? Check it out. Does this look like compost to you?

This is NOT compost. Close up of yard waste inside rabbit guard fencing.

My two favorite books right now are the Bubels' Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, and Steve Soloman’s Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food In Hard Times. I pulled out Gardening When It Counts this morning because I woke with a feeling of restless agitation, an inability to concentrate, and an un-assuageable drive to DO something. So … today is the day I solve the composting problem – hopefully without too much flexing of the checkbook.

Quite a few years of studying philosophy has shown me that you can’t solve a problem (in the real world OR in the metaphysical one) unless you can define that problem, so here goes.

Essentially, there are two problems. Make that two “problem areas.” There is The Inside Problem, and The Outside Problem. The Inside Problem deals with how to handle the food scraps before they ever make it outside, and I’m going to save discussion of The Inside Problem for another post. Today we’re heading outside.

The Outside Problem is the mess that I’ve already shown you. It contains the season’s worth of food scraps, dead vegetable plants (with and without vine borers, seeds, and who knows what else), gigantic weeds pulled haphazardly and far too infrequently from the summer garden, at least one dead snake, at least one cardboard box, and a very flimsy and unsatisfactory tomato cage. Oh, and at this point, LOTS of yucky grub-like organisms that have sprung into existence there and are quite obviously having the time of their lives.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that we have a pack of dogs, so whatever we do has to be appropriately fenced off so that the scraps are unavailable to them. They don’t look too intimidating, but believe me, they’re crafty when it comes to snatching scraps out of the “compost” pile, and my raw-foodie cocker would rather eat melon than meat.

The dogs. Three black dogs, one red and white cocker

We have an out of the way spot picked out for this new pile, but it’s currently full of grass clippings … this I believe is known as putting the cart before the horse. 

Pile of grass clippings with piece of rabbit guard.

Still, as my husband quite rightly pointed out, this most recent massive grass cutting will probably be our last big one of the year, and if we want to do something useful with the grass clippings then we needed to rake them up and pile them somewhere (we don’t have a bagger).

So … my idea was to use the same materials that I did for our un-composting disaster pile – cheap fence posts and rabbit guard – and to close off a much larger space this time, enough space that I can make a pile on one side and then move that pile to the other side. But I feel like I don’t have a whole lot of room here to work. I SO wish I could just go buy one of those big composting turning barrel thingies. But that’s not what we’re (trying to be) about here, so out comes Steve Solomon, the “gardening grandfather that I never had.” Except that I DID have a gardening grandfather of my own.

Grandfather, boy and girl on John Deere tractor.

But he’s been deceased for some years now. I think about him often and really miss him these days. But I didn’t see him all that often before he passed away, since he lived a thousand miles away from me; and quite frankly, I’m ashamed to say, when it came to gardening know-how back then I was happy to pick and eat the produce, but I wasn’t exactly paying rapt attention to the know-how. Enter Steve Solomon.

Anyway … It’s a cool September morning and I’m out here on the deck eating my breakfast and waiting for my daughter to wake up, and now I pause to read.

Compost Problem Solving Day – Noon

Well, after reading enough of Mr. Solomon’s compost chapter to feel thoroughly intimidated, I’ve come up with a plan. This rabbit guard and flimsy fence post thing just isn’t going to cut it. I don’t have enough materials on hand to make an enclosure big enough for me to make what should be an effective compost heap, to be able to move around it, and to keep my dogs the heck away from it. I have no problem going and getting more materials if that’s what it takes the get the job done – except that it doesn’t. I have a better idea. It’s this.

Chain link fence in front of privacy fence

Nope, not the rabbit guard in the foreground…the 6 foot tall chain link fence in the background, that’s standing in front of the privacy fence.

I bought this kennel earlier this year in yet another attempt to solve The Dog Problem. They quite refused to be kenneled quietly in it, and its use as a kennel was short-lived. So then I moved it to the side of the yard as you see above to distance my four dogs from our neighbor’s four (or five?) dogs. The neighbors keep their dogs out all the time, and the whole crew tends to get into an insane barking frenzy the moment my dogs step out the door. (I’m going to resist the opportunity to enlarge upon how unbelievably annoying this is. Moving on.)

This fence is an eyesore here anyway, and even though it DID cut down enormously on the fence-barking frenzy, it’s no longer doing any good, because the whole area has been reconfigured because of our immanent construction and now the dogs can get behind it, so Voila! I’m going to go with this as a compost enclosure.

I’ve eaten lunch, fed the kid, and bathed the muddy, groundhog-obsessed cocker spaniel, and I’m heading outside now with a craftsman wrench.

Compost Problem Solving Day – 1:38 p.m.

Well, once I decided what to do, doing it was pretty short work. It’s still an expensive solution to the problem, but it’s hundreds of bucks I wasted months ago, and not hundreds of bucks I’m wasting today; and if it works well then the money I spent on this thing won’t have been wasted at all, and that’ll be a good thing.

So, Phase 1 of The Great Compost Project is complete, and it looks like this.

Chain link 10 x 10 dog kennel with grass clippings inside.

It’ll keep the dogs out, keep the decomposing stuff contained, and give me some room to work so that maybe I can actually do something useful with all of our scraps.

What's to come? Well, phases 2, 3 and 4 are as follows:

Phase 2: Organize what’s in this cage so that I can collect stuff through the rest of the fall, and then build the compost heap. That’s going to involve moving all of these already nicely-rotting grass clippings up into one corner so that I can put them on as I build the pile at the end of the fall. I think I’m going to need a pitchfork for that. I can’t WAIT to get my pitchfork!

Phase 3: Develop a new in-house system for collecting food scraps. I think I need something bigger than the bowl that I’ve been using, so that the project requires less-frequent trips out to the heap.

Phase 4: Actually build the compost heap so that I will have compost for the spring. I’m still a little fuzzy on this step, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out, if I keep reading Steve Solomon and apply myself to it.

So, there you go: a problem-solving project well begun. I feel better already.

4/30/2011 1:07:52 AM

I like this idea for keeping the domestic animals out of the compost pile. Excellent !! Now please tell me if I can add paper shreds from the recyle bin and coffee filters? I know that coffee grounds are great for composting but what about those white filters?? Thanks !

s.m.r. saia
10/19/2009 10:30:46 AM

I posted this comment at the end of my first post, but because I don't know if any of those original commenters will even see it there, it's been so long, I thought I would post it again here too in hopes that those who read my first post are still following along. I was having technical issues getting comments posted for awhile there, and now that's resolved, so here goes. First I want to thank you all for the supportive comments. I'm happy to be here as part of this community, and I look forward to learning and sharing much. It looks like Grit doesn't have my bio up yet, so Chad, in response to your question about whether or not I have a blog, yes, this is my blog, but I also keep two others. For garden-specific stuff you can find me at For a running commentary on anything under the sun, but especially our sustainability adventures, you can follow along at Thanks for reading!

s.m.r. saia
10/19/2009 7:47:36 AM

Scott, I should have specified that I don't intended to add everything from the "not compost" pile to the new compost pile...I know it's way too big to ever hope to break down. But I do appreciate the advice! Nebraska Dave, thanks for the inspiring words!

nebraska dave
10/13/2009 10:16:38 AM

S.M.R., I too have this love hate relationship with composting. I read somewhere that all you have to do is use the grass clipping collected off the yard as mulch and it will compost in place. Silly me decided to heed that advice and shortly it started to heat up which decidedly cooked the plants, then it turned all slimy and after a couple more weeks turned moldy. It’s not a good idea to have all green and no brown in compost. I don’t use any house scraps because it’s just too difficult for me to keep all the critters out of the pile. Wild critters are much more adapt at finding a way get into what they want than domestic. This year I expanded my garden and I’m just layering the green grass clippings with the brown fall leaves that have been crunched up by “Chomper”, my lawnmower. I plan on wintering it over to next Spring then do a double dig in each of the beds before planting. I’m still trying to figure out what works for me. I do have a composting area, but right now it’s in a very dormant state and really needs some attentive action to get it going again. Since we have had two snows already and the temperatures are into the 20s every night, I think I’ll wait until Spring to work on getting the compost pile back to composting. Life is like a compost heap. The rotting debris of everyday trials just keep piling up….but if we wait long enough and remain steadfast and strong, even the stinkiest pile will bear good and worthwhile things. ~ Geraldine

scott pullins
10/12/2009 4:49:45 PM

You need to get a chipper shredder of some kind and the bigger the better. I've got one of those smaller electric ones and it isn't enough. If you don't shred some of that stuff, it will take forever to break down. Just my two cents!