Today I completed a really unpleasant, but totally necessary job. I disassembled and moved my compost pile in an attempt to get rid of habitat that I suspect has been attracting undesirables to our yard.
For several months, bunnies have been running rampant in my garden, nibbling beans down to the nub and leaving their calling cards around for my dog, Lily, to munch on. (Yuck.) I knew we had another animal in the yard, too, but the signs were less clear. Walking across the grass, I would sometimes feel the ground give under my foot. Then, I started to notice tunnel-like patterns, with raised areas, which sometimes (not always) were raised again the day after I would push them down. My neighbor’s cat, Leo, started hanging out in the yard. But, unlike the pocket gophers who tormented me two summers ago, these critters did not leave huge mounds of dirt in the yard that seemed to scream, “Ha, ha, let’s pretend you’re Bill Murray in Caddyshack!”
Recently, a neighbor, who grew up on a farm and knows all about critters, confirmed that we likely have a mole. I’ve also noticed chew marks on one of my smaller trees, which might indicated voles, too. One of the standard ways to deal with critters is to remove potential habitat, such as a messy compost pile. Oh-oh. My bad.
My compost pile, which grew to two piles over the past couple of years, is not one of those neat, enclosed affairs turning out black gold every six weeks. The first pile was enclosed in a wire cage, about 4 feet across and 4 feet high. The height of the cage made it hard for me to turn it, and consequently, I did not, and it seemed nothing ever rotted in there. It became a pile of dry weeds and sticks. So, I started a second pile next to it. At first, this was just a pile of sod removed from the yard to which I’d add spent perennials, weedings, and vegetable kitchen scraps. This baby rotted like crazy, which I think was mostly due to the dirt clinging to the sod that was the foundation of the pile and the fact that I could flip it around without climbing on a ladder.
Well, it took a couple of afternoons of work, but both piles have been flattened. I did not find any critters or obvious critter nests, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. Here’s the good news: Both piles yielded a remarkable amount of compost. After I took apart the cage and pulled all the dry stuff off the top of the first pile, I pulled out four wheel-barrows full of gorgeous compost that had sunk to the bottom. The second pile yielded three smaller wheel-barrows of compost. I spread most of this on my raspberry and vegetable beds. I took a big load of the dry stuff to the Northfield compost heap, which is open through Nov. 16, and I also started a smaller, open compost pile closer to the vegetable garden.
What to do next year? I’m not sure. While doing research for this post, I came across this video on how to make a raised compost bin that you can rotate, mostly using things from around the house. It’s a good idea, and the couple in the video are kind of cute.
Final note: The cherry tree with the bite marks on it now has a nice collar of hardware cloth to prevent future chewing, I hope.
Hm, mystery critter! My parents have battled moles for years, but I haven’t had them in my yard (yet). I’m glad you didn’t find anything icky in your compost pile – I’m still haunted by pics I saw on someone’s blog recently of a shovelful of compost + baby rats. Eww!
Penny Hillemann says
Fascinating! As my mother has often said about certain trying situations, “it’s all very interesting, if you can detach yourself!” Understandably it’s hard to stay detached when your garden and trees are under seige!
Your mother is a wise woman! The beavers concern me because of the sheer volume of destruction they are capable of. The other critters are irritations, but nothing to be too worried about. Fortunately, the cold weather will soon reduce the activity of all of them.
Northern Shade says
It’s too bad that your compost pile was invaded, but great that you got some rich compost for your garden. It sounds like you have a good idea to outwit the moles/voles next year with a raised pile. I hope it works, as I’m picturing you hiding at the side of your house with a dynamite plunger. Now I have the Caddyshack song running through my head.
Richard Yarnell says
Don’t be too hard on either the mole or your compost heap.
First of all, the mole is a gardener’s friend. It rarely attacks plants. It may appear as though the mole, a solitary critter that’s fiercly terratorial even to the point of driving males away after breeding and young away when they can fend fir themselves.
Moles eat grubs and other insect larvae that would otherwise attack your plants. If you find a mole in your garden, it’s patrolling for things you don’t want to be there. It also will clean up fungi that are trying to get a foothold in your orchard or garden.
At certain times of the year, they may horde seeds, but usually will not attack herbaceous plants.
The Vole is a different kettle of fish, Voles are scavangers first but will girdle trees, eat bulbs, and come to the surface to attack plants themselves. The difficulty is knowing which critter you’re dealing with.
Learn the difference, observe whether there is surface activity that suggests voles, and, if the investation is bad enough, target your action to them. But please, welcome the mole, rake it’s small hills into the surrounding grass, but leave their tonnels alone. They’re your ally when it comes to keeping your garden healthy.
Now, as to your compost pile. I’m an advocate of batch composting that requires only a few weeks to produce useable compost. For one thing, batch composting produces relatively high temperatures that help eliminate pathogens you don’t want in your garden. While the high temperatures may attract nesting wildlife, because you periodically disturb the pile, you’ll usually kill at least some of the evil doers (like that nest of rats or mice reported above.
In “The Stack” which we manufacture, we batch just under a cubic yard of material at a time. We chip almost everything (or did when we lived in town). We used a thermometer to know when one stage was slowing down, and turned the pile on its schedule. When we were marketing The Stack, we made several yards of compost at a time in display units. If we had access to material that would make a balance recipe, we could produce finished compost in 30-45 days. Yes, I killed an occasional nest of rodents, but by and large, frequent churning discouraged them from even attempting nests.
There are, of course, other styles of composting: sheet composting which requires time since it generally doesn’t have a significant thermophylic stage; the old rubbish heap which will require a very long time to work and, IMO, is not a good idea in an urban or confined setting. I have a prejudice against cheap, small composters that don’t promote good “air” circulation or that aren’t big enough to form the critical mass that raises the interior temperature as high as 160F.
Love those moles.