In our first ten years here, our plantings didn’t, um, do well. We have wet spots (bone dry in summer), and spots sucked dry year round by Western Red Cedars. Our half acre is heavy clay, shaded by conifers on three sides. We’ve killed rhododendrons outright,and tortured many other plants. Three magnolias have grown, but glacially, if that still means slow. We tried amending the soil, building up raised berms, a drip hose for summer. Failures all. I’d have given up and let the sword ferns have the yard, but my husband is a tree and shrub enthusiast of some ambition.

Complicating things, we’re in the sensitive Lake Whatcom watershed–the lake is drinking water for 85,000 residents. Even though the land is sloped, the water table is high much for much of the year. In a hard rain I can readily see water running off. We don’t use anything on the lawn, but rapid run-off is still bad for the lake.

What I need is a low cost way to improve the odds for our rhodies, magnolias, maples and smaller stuff, and do my part to help the lake as well. The Washington State University Extension office has a word for me: Compost. Actually, several words: “Compost will save the world!” Reduces run-off, builds better soil structure, and the rest.

Did I mention I’m averse to physical labor? Just thinking of buying compost and hauling and wheelbarrowing and shoveling makes me reach for another cup of tea and a blanket to put over my head. I raise a mug to you who do this by the truckload. But, can I make my own, in piles located in various spots near where I might later use it?

Of course it won’t be traditional hot composting–much too shady here. Cut to last summer. I hired a gardener while nursing a hurt back. Anna poked into the old, unsightly weed heap across from our driveway that we never got around to hauling away in an embarassing four years or so. She declared the stuff under the surface “fluffy” humus, and used it for new beds. I had been composting before I knew it. The lushest humus that’s ever graced this half-acre, and no lawn and weed chemicals. The trick will be to avoid the unsightliness. And figure out how to add food waste in raccoon territory.

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