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A Scavenger's Guide to (Mostly) Free Compost


Maria Gaura

By Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ (December 2008) - Wintry weather has finally arrived in Santa Cruz, and most backyard gardeners have abandoned their vegetable beds to the cold-hardy weeds and the neighborhood cats.
But before you curl up on the sofa with a mug of tea and a stack of seed catalogs, there is one last chore to do. Build a low-maintenance compost heap out of free or low-cost organic materials, and let nature turn it into a worm-filled soil amendment that will be ready in time for spring planting.

The work is minimal and, with a little planning, your winter compost pile can be used to smother weeds and deter those pesky cats. Best of all, the materials can be scrounged (mostly) for free, right here in Santa Cruz from local stables, coffee shops and even your neighborhood beach.

Newly-built winter compost pile in December ©


The same pile 14 weeks later ©

Build your pile by layering horse manure with fallen leaves, used coffee grounds, straw, and even seaweed. Top off the heap with a layer of straw or leaves, to prevent the rain from compacting your pile, and your work is (mostly) done. Use any combination of the above materials, as long as you alternate the soggy layers with the dry, crunchy ones.
Gathering your raw materials is the first, and most time-consuming, step. A couple of five-gallon buckets will come in handy for collecting and hauling wet and smelly organic stuff. A truck, or a friend with a truck, is useful, but not necessary. Just make sure the buckets can’t tip over in the back of your car.
And try to take your scavenged compostables directly home. A pot of coffee smells good, but a five-gallon bucket of wet coffee grounds smells revolting, especially after simmering for a couple of hours in the back of a warm minivan.
Horse manure can be collected for free at many local stables, but remember that you will be venturing onto private property stocked with large and unpredictable animals. If you don’t know the rules, call first and ask permission before showing up.
Julio Rinaldi, owner of Coast Road Stables, says gardeners are welcome to fill their buckets from the towering manure pile at the center of his stable complex.
“All people need to do is keep it down to 5 miles per hour when they’re driving through my property,” Rinaldi said. “Otherwise, they can drive on up to the manure pile and help themselves.”
Used coffee grounds make excellent compost, and coffee shops pay to have the stuff hauled away. But a surprising number of coffee shop employees have no idea what compost is, and will be completely baffled, if not deeply suspicious of your motives, if you ask for their used grounds.
One refreshing exception is Starbucks, where the employees will cheerfully bag up used coffee grounds, hand it over, and wish you a nice day. Corporate policy supports recycling, and it shows.
Peet’s Coffee on Pacific Avenue is also hip to composting, and contributed about 10 five-gallon buckets of used grounds and filters to my compost pile last year. I would drop off two empty buckets in the morning, after taking my daughter to school, and pick up the full buckets on my return trip. Coffeetopia on Mission St. will also give away large amounts of used grounds, but the manager asks that you supply your own bucket. 
If you have a coffee shop in the neighborhood, ask the manager about their used-grounds policy. Tell the barista your earthworms are hungry.
Fallen leaves are a wonderful source of organic matter, and if you don’t have a deciduous tree, your neighbors probably do. Most homeowners will happily let you come over and rake their lawn for them, and some may even pay your kid ten bucks to do the job.
Seaweed is also free, unless you collect it from Cowell or Main Beach, in which case you will need a quarter or two for the meter. Take gloves when picking up seaweed, you never know when you’re going to run across a deceased seagull, or worse.
Straw is a very useful addition to the compost pile, and the only one that requires any cash. You don’t need straw if you have enough dry leaves to alternate with the wet layers. But straw is easy to use, holds air better than leaves, and a final layer of straw gives the pile a neat, finished look.
Rice straw has the fewest weed seeds, and a humongous bale costs $9.75 at General Feed and Seed. If you know another gardening nut in the neighborhood, offer to split the cost.
For best results, build a pile two to three feet tall. Nice tall piles drain better. Alternate wet and dry layers to the best of your ability, and make the layers no more than four to six inches deep.
Go easy on the seaweed, and choose the leafy weed over the ropy stuff. Seaweed contains lots of minerals, but earthworms are not crazy about it, and a thick layer of seaweed can prevent the worms from making their way to the upper reaches of the pile. You might try chopping the seaweed with a shovel before layering it in.
The pile will not smell bad or attract flies as long as the seaweed and manure are covered with a layer of leaves or straw. The pile will improve the soil where it is located, and will attract and support thousands of earthworms. I build winter compost piles beneath my fruit trees, which benefit from the added nitrogen and bioactivity.
You can also build a pile directly on top of a raised vegetable bed, where it will smother overwintering weeds and deter cats from digging.
If you enjoy turning compost, pull the top layer of straw aside and go for it! It’s great therapy. But if you completely forget about your compost pile until April, no harm done. By that time your pile will have shrunk to half its original size, and be almost fully decomposed. A quick turn or two at that point and your compost will be ready to use.
Once you’ve got your winter compost piled high and tucked beneath a layer of straw, it’s time to pull out those seed catalogs again. Next year’s garden is going to be extraordinary.