For composters of all kinds, there’s delight in decay

  • Sandy Lerner and farm manager Chris Damewood check out their mammoth compost operation at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Virginia. (Washington Post photo / Adrian Higgins)

By Adrian Higgins The Washington Post

Compost piles have been a staple of gardening since Adam was handed that accursed apple, but compost takes many forms.

It might be a pile of windblown leaves, trapped in the ankles of a shrub to rot away over the winter with no help from the gardener.

At the other end rests the large-scale commercial composting operation, which requires land, equipment, labor and a large, steady stream of raw materials.

What most gardeners discover in time is that there are two basic types of compost piles. In the first, the keen novice spends much effort assembling a bin of just the right proportions and feeds it grass clippings, old cabbage leaves collected from the neighbors and other organic waste that will achieve the prescribed ratio of 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. The perfectionist monitors the moisture level, turns the pile as needed (when ambient temperatures aren’t too cold) and acquires a compost thermometer to gauge the pile’s vitality.

Then, there’s the rest of us, who start off with lofty ideas about tending a “hot” pile but end up dumping material in a bin or a free-standing pile and getting on with our lives. This produces a cold pile, which decays at its own pace and comes with a couple of disadvantages. The first is that it may take a year to get compost that you can use as a soil amendment or for top-dressing beds and lawns. The other is that its lack of heat means that weed seeds survive, and you can end up salting your yard with devilish plants.

If I think compost is weedy, I’ll bury it in vegetable beds or at the bottom of containers.

If you had the foresight to gather, shred and stockpile leaves last fall, you can enliven the pile with all those grass clippings that the spring lawn is about to generate. Make sure you mix them thoroughly into the pile, and give it a watering. Waterlogged piles will go pungently anaerobic, at which point you must board up the home and flee to the hills. But a pile that dries out will mummify and need kick-starting with fresh material and a soaking.

Why do we need compost?

Beyond physically improving the water- and oxygen-holding capacities of the soil, compost contains a galaxy of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Once in the soil, these microbes make plants healthier and more vigorous, trees among them. Achieving all this while you’re keeping yard waste on your site is an obvious plus.

One true believer is Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned organic farmer in Upperville, Virginia, who makes and spreads compost by the boatload. The finished product is laid on the livestock pastures that define her 800-acre Ayrshire Farm. The grass is more vigorous, better at crowding out weeds, and loaded with the nutrients needed by her animals. “We are basically grass farmers,” Lerner said.

Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems and later created the cosmetics line Urban Decay. But she moved to Virginia hunt country in the 1990s and has been organically raising rare breeds of cattle and swine along with chickens and turkeys. Her story has been told in these pages and others. But what isn’t as well known is her devotion to compost.

I met her recently with her farm manager Chris Damewood in a clearing of four acres where row upon row of aging compost — windrows — formed dark-brown stripes encircled with hills of more compost. I counted 25 rows each about 200 feet long, but Damewood told me that at peak production, he has 40 rows extending to 275 feet. Each is about five feet high and turned mechanically five times a fortnight. “The temperatures will get up to 165 degrees,” he said, “but we don’t want it to get too high. If it gets above 170 degrees, you can get a fire within.”

Deep in my heart, these mounds of black gold provoke a little compost envy, but I tell myself that Lerner has what I don’t have — a legion of livestock to fuel the operation, not to mention the vegetable waste generated by the farm and four satellite farms, and the arrival of manure and bedding from 20 surrounding horse farms.

Lerner, an avowed Anglophile, said she decided to come to Virginia because of its links — visual and cultural — to the motherland. “The Southern ways are the closest we get to England,” she said.

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