Cart 0

Building a Compost Pile

Posted by David Grau on

Originally Posted on January 04, 2014

Happy New Year from all of us at Valley Oak Tool Co.

We hope 2014 brings you great planting and harvesting opportunities.

2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. Declared by the U.N. General Assembly, the whole world is poised to celebrate the multitude of ways in which family farmers contribute to food and nutrition security and environmental preservation.

Building a Compost Pile

Composting is a great way to keep biomass on your property, keep food waste out of the landfills, and help build soil life as microorganisms will be attracted to the bioactivity in the pile.

compost pileWith the lack of rain in our area we still have a good selection of dry leaves from our deciduous trees around. Dry leaves are a great foundation for making compost. A pile of leaves alone will eventually turn into a crumbly finished product. With the addition of grass clippings and spent produce, or with soiled chicken litter, and some water, the pile will more quickly turn into a crumbly finished compost.

We started our pile with a layer of loose twigs, from fruit tree pruning, cut up into six-inch pieces. On top of that we piled a mixture of dried oak leaves mixed with some mulberry leaves. Then we added a couple of wheel barrow loads of litter from the chicken coop—straw, wood shavings, oak leaves and chicken manure—and topped all of that with another pile of the mixed, dried leaves.

As we built the pile we sprayed the materials with water, then topped the pile with some heavier branches (mostly to keep the chickens from tearing apart the pile too soon). Our pile measured about three feet high and five feet long, with a width of about four feet. This combination of materials will start to heat up as the nitrogen in the chicken manure, combined with moisture, speeds decomposition of the dry materials.

We have the option of turning the pile every few weeks, to ensure all the material spends some time in the heat, or we can leave it alone for a month or two, and then let the chickens at it to spread the materials around while looking for bugs, worms, and other creatures which aid in decomposition. Lacking the help of chickens, compost piles can be turned with a pitch fork and allow all the materials to thoroughly compost.

Tools, Tools, Tools

David sharpening a wheel hoe bladeWith planting season a while away, now is a good time to assess your tools and do some maintenance. We are cleaning up our tools, giving a drop of oil here or there, and tightening loose nuts.

We also like to spend some time sharpening our tools. Wheel hoe blades will cut with greater efficiency if they are sharp. We use a mill bastard file to sharpen the wheel hoe blades. Take a look at our video of David Grau sharpening wheel hoe blades.


We also like a sharp shovel, and use the mill bastard file to sharpen our shovels. Wooden handles on tools will benefit from being cleaned of excess soil, and rubbed with a light application of mineral oil. It is also important to keep wooden handled tools out of the sun and rain when not in use. This will help the wood handles last much longer.

Selecting Seeds

The seed catalogs have been arriving in our mail. The attractive photos and descriptions make some of us inclined to order many new seeds. The promise of a great new F-1 lettuce that handles heat is tempting. Heirloom beans from Italy, with pods that remain tender if picked a day or two later than other beans , also very tempting. We generally stick to open pollinated seeds so that we can save the seeds year after year, improving the plants for our particular garden. Farmers sometimes opt for the newest hybrids to try to maintain a competitive edge in the market.

lettuceWhatever your seed philosophy is, it is important to make sure the seeds you choose are suitable for your climate. Checking the number of days to maturity will help avoid the disappointment of a melon that doesn't quite ripen in a short growing season area, for example. So if melons are on your list to grow this year, and you live in a short growing area, look for an early-ripening melon.

We generally like to buy our seeds from local seed companies when possible. Redwood Seeds is an organic seed farm near Mount Lassen in Northern California, and they offer open pollinated, non-hybrid seeds. They will be selling their seeds at the Chico Farmers market starting in February 2014. They also have seed racks in stores in Northern California.

We also like Wild Garden Seed, based in Oregon, for their offerings of large quantities of organic seeds for market growers. You can buy organic seed by the packet or by the pound from Wild Garden Seed. Buying seed from sources close to where you grow supports your local seed farmers and also helps increase local food security.

What We're Reading

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver

Heirloom Vegetable GardeningRich with growing information this book is also a history lesson in the origins and development of a range of heirloom vegetables. The book is a fascinatingly detailed, encyclopedic read, with charming drawings and also full color photos. Weaver is a gardener and food historian who has done great research on so many interesting vegetables.

Take lettuce for example: "Lettuce was first cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, and since it played a role in their religious rituals, they have left ample records in the form of wall paintings and tomb reliefs as to the nature of the lettuce they grew, some of the oldest images dating from as early as 2680 B.C."

Heirloom vegetables have a wonderful story, and Weaver tells it with authority and humor. Weaver also shares recipes gleaned from old cook books, many of which are so sparse with measurements the modern cook will look at their measuring devices as somewhat useless.

For those gardeners and farmers out there who are interested in heirloom vegetables, this book is a must for your library.

Until next time, we hope you enjoy your January.

Shop Now

Shop for BroadforksShop for Wheel Hoes

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.