Friday, July 12, 2013

We burned the compost bin

No matter how noble my intentions to garden organically may be, sometimes life gets in the way.  In my case, a rotting compost bin, built by my husband, Scott, and I when we moved to our house nine years ago, derailed my organic ideals.  The compost bin was made of untreated lumber because I didn’t want to use treated lumber that might contaminate my compost with chemicals.  Of course, with constant exposure to soil and moisture, it began to rot immediately after construction.  Scott told me it would rot, but, because I was trying to garden organically, I did not want to use treated lumber, and other options were too expensive.

When we built the compost bin, we placed it in what was then the edge of the woods and out of sight of the house.  In the intervening years, we built a patio with a fireplace and a formal garden, which had an unrestrained view of the compost bin after we cut some of the pine trees that seemed to enjoy falling towards the house. 

The compost bin, built to my specifications, was 12 feet long and three feet wide, not something I could hide easily.  It had three wire bins with doors on hinges, and with my husband’s penchant for overbuilding everything, many nails.  Hundreds, even. 
Because it was rotten and unstable, we could not relocate it to a better site, and I had tired of shoveling compost over the 4-feet-tall sides from bin to bin.  Somehow, my children sucked away the extra energy I used to use for that task, and I needed an easier method of making compost.

We thought about dragging away the remains to rot in a gully on our property, but we decided against that option because after the wood rotted, mounds of wire mesh and nails would remain to puncture the soles of little feet that would surely explore the gullies one day.  Burning it became our only alternative for disposal. 

Organic ideals and necessity clashed as Scott, the lazy pyromaniac, excited about a bonfire in the yard, and without using kindling or breaking down the bin, doused the structure with gasoline and set it ablaze.  Aside from an initial burst of flame that disconcerted my daughter, and some charred wood, the fire went out quickly.  We tried again with more gasoline and some kindling, but the fire never engulfed the bin.  We did damage a fire ant nest near the fire.  I am not recommending this as a treatment for fire ants, though; the nest came back in a few weeks.

Scott had an impending trip out of town, so he saved the task for my father, another fire-lover (what man isn’t?) with many more years’ experience in burning unwanted structures around his farm.  My father set to breaking down the bin, with my help.  We salvaged wire and hinges, gathered kindling, piled the broken-down bin parts together, and set the bin ablaze.

After my father bought a heat pump for the house and quit using a wood stove for heat, he doesn't get to build fires nearly often enough for his taste.  He grew up in a house in which his mother cooked on a woodstove and the only source of heat was wood, and he became skilled at building a fire.  During my childhood, he laid fires so perfectly that he could light the fire with a match and give it no more attention except to adjust the dampers on the stove to achieve a roaring fire.  Scott’s only experience with building fires seems to involve lighter fluid or gasoline; his fire building skills have improved now that we live in a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

After the fire cooled, I gathered the remaining wire and recycled it.  I swept the pile several times with a large magnet, of the type roofers use to find errant nails, to remove the nails from the ash pile.  When Scott came home from his trip out of town, he was glad that my father helped me take care of one of my projects.

When I have building projects, I still avoid treated lumber.  My father gave us cedar lumber cut from his property to build the chicken coop.  Scott built me two cold frames, and he used treated lumber because, he declared, "I'm not going to do all that work and have it rot in a year or two."  I agree with him.  My compost pile, these days,  is a jumble of ingredients on the ground that I don’t turn.  I don't have as much compost as I used to, but it’s much easier to manage.  I also leave compost ingredients, such as dead plants or trimmings, on the ground to decompose in place, or I feed them to the chickens.


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