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The Dry Garden: Even the compost bin needs cleaning

September 3, 2010 |  8:00 am

Compost The fig beetles seem late this year, and maybe they are. It’s been unseasonably cool for much of the summer. Yet when these drowsy fliers properly known as Cotinis mutabilis appear, it’s a cue. It’s time to empty the contents from the bottom of your compost bins to make room for fresh additions at the top.

Why? These bugs, also called June beetles, are in search of decomposing vegetation in which to lay eggs, where their grubs will become an integral part of the composting process. If you want to enlist these most excellent helpers and prepare your compost bin for fall planting, the time to do it is now.

You will need a pitchfork, a wheel barrow, some burlap, a scoop shovel and fluent profanity.

The swear words are needed when wrestling with the various designs of bins, which range from bad to awful to sadistic. Whether or not you have the plastic slatted boxes distributed by the city and sold in stores, if you have tried to empty a bin of finished compost by using the little slatted opening at the bottom, you probably have been reduced to sweaty incredulity.

These ground-level windows don’t work, or at least well not well enough to dignify their existence. Rather, the best way to get at the finished compost is to have at the pile once a year, and to start from the top.

Spread burlap near the bin. Using a pitch fork, empty the still-cooking mass of unfinished recent additions onto the cloth, taking a short break to allow various creatures involved in the decomposition process to recover and retreat. As you pause, cuss. Curse the designers of these contraptions and every blithe garden writer who ever extolled one.


Stop moving the half-digested compost to the burlap once you reach finished compost. That it is done to perfection will be evident to the eyes, fingers and nose. It will be almost black. It will crumble to the touch. And it will be headily sweet-smelling.

Start scooping this finished compost into a wheelbarrow.

What you do with it depends on the state of your garden. It can be set aside in a bin dedicated for finished soil, ready add to your vegetable garden when pulling out tomatoes to plant autumn salads. Or it can be used around fruit trees and covered with mulch to insulate them from late summer heat. If using it as a potting medium for vegetables, augment it roughly four parts compost to one part chicken or horse manure for a nitrogen boost.

Once the finished compost is harvested, resume the cursing. Put the bin back in place and return the uncooked mix to it. Then start adding your salvia prunings, lawn clippings and fall leaves. Part of the magic trick of dealing with great piles of leaves is to mow them before putting them in the bin, then turning the compost with pitch fork and soaking it every couple of weeks with a hose to keep the composting process cooking. Woody stems should be saved for the wood chipper and mulch-making.

Thanks to all the fig beetles flying around, it will soon be teaming with grubs that will help chew through whatever you add to it over the coming year, ensuring a haul of new soil next year.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water landscaping appears here on Fridays.

Photo credit: Diane Cu

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