Today, December 4, 2010, was a perfect day in the garden. I’m writing this so I can look back on this post in years to come and say, what? Really? Because your typical Maine early December day is not a balmy 40 degrees, perfectly still, with the sun peeping out from the low, smooth gray cloud cover like it was today. Yes, I needed a fleece vest, wool tights, gloves and a hat but still – no mosquitoes! The day length this time of year is tough too. I had to clean up my tools at 3:30 this afternoon, ahead of full dark at 4:30.

We have a big black “Earth Machine” composter just to the right of the front door. I bought it through the town Conservation Commission and, as much as I hate to buy plastic to make dirt, it works like a charm. A full year of kitchen waste goes in and I dig the results out of the bottom door in the fall, complete with a vast families of red worms that take up residence and multiply over the summer.

Step 1: Spread a tarp in the immediate vicinity, grab a wheelbarrow, shovel, compost turner (optional but handy) and a stout pair of gloves (required). Open the small door at the bottom of the compost bin and poke around with the turner or a long handled weeder to break up the stuff on the bottom of the bin. It will be moist and full of eggshells and avocado pits that don’t compost completely, and full of worms.

The compost turner is the metal stake with the green plastic handle in the photo. The business end has two metal “wings” bolted to a fairly sharp point. You poke into the pile and when you pull the tool back the wings flip down and pull material with it. Very handy for stirring the pile, or breaking up clumps.

Step 2: Shovel the loosened compost into the wheelbarrow and distribute around the garden. I prefer to dig a hole in an established bed and dump a few shovel-fulls of compost in the hole, then cover it with soil. The worms will spread out through the rest of the bed on their own, and they won’t freeze solid tonight, which they might if I just sprinkled them in a thin layer of compost over the top. Of course, you could argue that I could just do this earlier in the season and not have that problem, but whatever. I can’t believe I’m doing this in early December either.

Step 3: Clean out around the lower door. Over the summer the dandelions and Chinese Forget-me-Not love to root into the nice stuff in the bin and the door becomes overgrown – or maybe that’s just me. Once the door is closed, tamp down the remaining uncomposted material in the top of the bin until it falls to the bottom. The compost turner is a good choice for this, but a shovel handle works too.

Step 4: All set to go for 2011! I use only vegetable and garden waste in this bin – as per the instructions from the manufacturer. We do contribute a lot of coffee waste and fortunately it doesn’t seem to interfere with the composting process. I don’t find raccoons and skunks to be a problem, but then again I have coyotes.

Worms + raw material = dirt. Better than gold.

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