Gardeners in Routt County face adversity in the form of climate. A short growing season with cold nights common and July frosts that are not unheard of are factors beyond the control of gardeners.
One thing they can control is soil quality. And one of the most environmentally conscious means of amending soil is to keep a compost heap.
Hayden's Richard "Festus" Hagins is one of the few vegetable gardeners in Routt County's harsh climate to successfully grow sweet corn. And compost is a significant part of his success.
Hagins' ability to grow vegetables in Routt County is helped along by the pile of nutrient-rich compost "cooking" in one corner of his garden. He feeds his compost pile with alternating layers of chopped straw, garden cuttings, soil, vegetable kitchen scraps and well-rotted manure.
"I put the layers together like you would lasagna," Hagins said.
However, instead of interspersing the layers with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauces, Hagins sprays on his own special sauce.
"You're going to laugh," Hagins predicts before reciting the menu or his compost sauce: one can of flat beer, one can of flat cola, one cup liquid lemon dish soap and one cup lemon ammonia.
After mixing up a batch of sauce, Hagins pours it into the bottle attachment of the type of garden sprayer made to screw onto a hose. Then he sprays it between layers of his composting while assembling and turning his pile.
"What it has is the proteins the microbes need to start eating," the discarded organic materials that eventually break down into compost.
The ammonia, Hagins said, is an excellent source of nitrogen and the dish soap actually helps soil and other materials absorb liquid nutrients.
"The soap acts as a surfactant," Hagins said. "Did you ever see a little kid spit in the dirt and see it ball up?" The dish soap breaks down the surface tension that causes liquids to bead up on dust, he explained. In addition, soap is a source of phosphorous, Hagins said.
Extension agents at Washington State University say there are two kinds of compost piles -- slow piles and fast piles. Slow piles are the easiest to maintain -- gardeners simply mix non woody plant waste in a pile and let it sit with little attention for a year. However, gardeners whose goals include killing weed seeds in their compost pile need to invest enough time in the project to develop a fast pile. "Fast" compost piles generate enough heat in the first weeks of their existence -- 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit-- to kill weeds.
In order to achieve that goal, gardeners must use a pitchfork to turn the pile weekly and add water when needed. Turing and mixing the vegetable materials in the pile introduces oxygen which speeds biological decay promoted by microorganisms.
The pile won't produce sufficient heat unless it is big enough to begin with -- at least one cubic yard in volume.
Composting is almost a lifestyle for Hagins. He keeps a compost bucket under his sink. The bottom is lined with a layer of charcoal briquettes to absorb odors. Into the bucket goes almost all kitchen scraps except for dairy (cheese) and any kind of meet. Banana peels, coffee grounds, potato peels, egg shells and even stale bread all go into the bucket. The bucket, in turn, is frequently emptied into a compost pile.
Chopping up vegetable scraps before they go into the bucket will accelerate the composting process, Hagins said.
He also enlists a couple of power tools that not every homeowner will invest in. Hagins has his own chipper/shredder to break down tree and shrubbery branches. In addition, he has a "Leaf Eater" that reduces four plastic bags of leaves down to a single bag.
He actually maintains two compost piles -- one is further along then the other and represents compost that can go onto the garden in the current season. The other pile is new material that will be ready for the garden the following summer.
The compost heaps are contained within structures built from wooden pallets and concrete blocks turned on edge to expose the holes to the organic material in the heap. That design allows oxygen to get to the composting organic matter.
Hagins is not a fan of putting grass clippings in his compost pile -- he prefers instead to use a mulching blade on his mower. It's a myth, he said, that grass clippings increase thatch in a lawn. Instead, he said, they compost themselves into the turf. Composters who do add grass clippings to their heap should allow them to dry thoroughly first, Hagins advises. Otherwise, they get too wet and mat into smelly clumps. Any compost heap that isn't sweet smelling has the wrong mixture of materials, he added.
Compost heaps also benefit from being turned over and mixed at regular intervals.
"Depending on how ambitious you are, you could turn it once a week," Hagins said. "A good old pitchfork works fine."
Compost heaps should be kept damp, but shouldn't be soaked. Even on cool Routt County summer nights, the interior of a good compost heap that is actively breaking down organic material should stay in the 90-degree temperature range, he said.
Hagins once ran a test to demonstrate the benefit of composting.
"I did a little experiment with a bed of pansies," he said. On one side of the flower bed he tilled compost into the soil, and the other side was left alone.
"You want to talk about a big difference," Hagins said. "The side with the compost was full of blossoms all year long."