Compost tools: Rage against the machine

The compost-auger-that-has-to-be-attached-to-a-drill, subject of yesterday’s rant, is just the latest motorized gadget I’ve seen recommended for composters. Some manuals seem to assume that everyone keeps a garage full of gas-guzzling machines handy. Shredders, gas-powered mowers and roto-tillers top the list, but weed whackers and chippers get occasional mention, and now we can add electric aeraters to the list.

Composting happens most swiftly if materials are chopped into tiny pieces first, of course. So what to do with leaf-piles to “prepare” them for the compost heap? Just drive your mulching lawn-mower over them, many manuals advise, as if of course everyone has a mulching lawn-mower. Most such sites don’t say, “If you have a mulching mower, you can use it to….” No. They say “drive your mulching mower….” Do they have a contract with the mowing manufacturers, I wonder?

Newspaper, I read in my current composting book, can be composted; ‘but be sure to shred it first.’ With your handi-dandi shredder, of course. Even sticks and logs can be used if you toss them in the chipper and mix them with—But I don’t care what I’m supposed to mix them with; I’m ready to compost the book.

I’ve got two MAJOR problems with this sort of idiocy.

First of all, I don’t own any of those things, I don’t want to own any of those things, and I never will own any of those things. (If that’s not perfectly clear, I can say it louder.) I don’t own them, and so these books and websites which assume that I do own them are not talking to me, which means they are wasting my time, and I’m sorry, but I tend to agree with Al Pacino in Heat on that topic.*

Secondly, I was under the impression that one major reason for composting was to be kind to the environment. You know, keeping stuff out of landfills, reducing one’s need to buy at least this one product (compost), perhaps reducing one’s need for others if one raises one’s own vegetables.

So the logic of using multiple gas-powered tools to prepare ingredients and to get the compost into the ground entirely escapes me. Gas-powered garden equipment tends to be very polluting, contributing way more hydro-carbons to the atmosphere than you’d think possible. Not to mention the ungodly noise it makes.

Yes, some people (and at the moment I’m on that list) have physical limitations that keep them from turning compost by hand, for instance. But the vast majority of Americans could use a bit more exercise, and most of us would be injured less often if we hung up the leaf-blowers and got out the rakes. And yes, some gardens are so big that hand-shoveling can be either psychologically or physically overwhelming, and if so, then renting a rototiller for an afternoon is probably the smart thing to do–once every two or three years.

However, most of the machines recommended for composting are simply extras. Of course stuff composts more quickly if it’s chopped up—but it will still compost in well under a season even if it’s added whole. As for rototilling compost into the earth—deep digging is a good idea when first trying to establish a balanced soil with good structure, but after that, a fair body of evidence indicates that it just disrupts that structure. Compost can generally be laid on top of a bed that’s got good soil, and earth-worms will do your rototilling for you.

Some sources suggest a range of approaches suitable for different people with different needs. But an extraordinary number talk as if making and using compost are all but impossible unless you’ve got a garage-full of machines.

Now I find that here in the U.S. the only compost augers available are those driven by an electric drill. Why am I not surprised?

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* For what it’s worth, I find it similarly offensive when some sources assume that everyone is strong enough to turn a compost pile with a fork in ten minutes without breaking a sweat, much less a back. Part of my irritation stems from my background as a writing teacher: either approach (everyone’s got a machine, everyone’s strong) excludes a large part of one’s potential audience, and that’s just not smart. Part of it stems from some larger principles about inclusiveness and compassion: try to imagine how someone weaker, stronger, richer or poorer would manage.

10 Responses to Compost tools: Rage against the machine

  1. Kate, I have the perfect composting tool. In fact, I have three of them. They are called boys and can be rented cheep, often for the price of ice cream. It sounds like the author of your composting book is getting a commission from John Deere. They need to remember that compost just happens.

  2. I have the perfect composting tool, it’s called self.
    NOTHING gets me more annoyed than the Cacophony of endless machines at weekend, strimmers, hedge cutters, mowers, mulchers, chippers, chainsaws – it’s endless.
    I don’t own any of these things,I have secatuers, some sheep shears I use for topiary and hedging, a rake for the leaves, and sheers, for the edges. I have 3 compost bins that produce great compost and leaf mould for improving the soil condition in my garden, and for potting composts.
    Gardening for me is a time of contemplation and relaxation, an opportunity to commune with the earth; last thing I want is an orchestra of machines drowning out the sounds of the birds and insects as I potter around the place.

  3. I subscribe to the “put it in a pile and let it rot” composting philosophy and it seems to work out just fine in the end. I think a lot of people are scared off from even trying because of all the nit-pickiness we see in composting information.
    All those noisy tools drive me nuts too! We use a reel mower and my husband uses a scythe instead of a gas powered weed eater – it works great and gives him a good workout, though it is entertaining for the neighbors :)

  4. Do you rent them out, Deb? Mine are helpful on occasion, but pretty busy with their own lives and not even around or available a lot of the time, so it’s pretty much me and the compost heap. I also like doing stuff myself, and this is how I stay in shape, much of the time.
    I’m with you, Zoë. There’s something seriously wrong when one is driven in from the yard in summer by the cacaphony.
    That’s my husband’s composting philosophy as well, Amy, which is why I don’t get a whole lot of help there. I’m trying to get the pile hot enough to kill pathogens and weeds, and I’d also like to compost stuff more quickly, so I can process more in a year. We’ve got very little space–certainly not enough for Zoë’s three piles!–and I never, but NEVER have enough compost. So the more I can get, the better.
    But you’re absolutely right about people being afraid to try. I want to offer a bunch of possibilities–a range of composting styles?– in my upcoming article, rather than insisting on any one method.
    I figure that amusing the neighbors is practically a duty. Good for your husband.
    –Kate

  5. Do you have blacksmiths in Bozeman, Montana? Chaps with ruddy complexions and biceps as large as chickens? Or the modern equivalent with a selection of machines capable of folding, twisting and bending swords into ploughshares etc.
    They should be able to forge you a very superior auger very quickly and cheaply.

  6. I’m so with you, Kate! Even in the kitchen, everyone seems to assume you have a microwave, a food processor, and God knows what-all else. Yo! How about a paring knife and cutting board?! As for the compost pile, we have a three-bin system: dump stuff in, take it out of the oldest bin to spread on the garden beds, the end. The closest thing we have to automation are our chickens (great auto-composters) and our earthworm bin (ditto on a smaller scale). Sheet composting is another great solution. Noisy, gas-guzzling contraptions? Paugh.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes!
    It’s about time that people take those gardeners in their audience/marketing pool who are not all about instant gratification into consideration.
    Personally I think that human-scale tools are the way of the future, not a garage-full of pollution-farting toys.

  8. A great idea, James, especially as Bozeman abounds in such chaps. I shall check it out. In the meantime, though, I’ve gone and ordered one of the auger eyes Susan recommended. My garden shall soon be the compost-auger capital of North America.
    –Kate

  9. Hey Kate Gardner, I just want to know if you’re patronizing compost fertilizer like the ones available at Designer Soils? You know, organic fertilizer is very effective and it helps in making the soil fertile from the previous depletion.

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