Composting & water in the Columbia Basin

My mother has had a compost bin since our move to Washington in 1979.  It was unspeakable to trash anything that could be composted as she had a large vegetable garden and it needed a constant source of rich soil.  In south Snohomish County composting is easy: toss in a heap, wait a year and you typically had lovely soil beneath the current vegetable matter.

Here I am, living in Grant County, loving the sun and dry weather personally, but realizing that I have to work much harder to produce the same composted soil.  Last year my terrific and handy husband made me a compost bin out of treated wood boards we removed from the back yard.  We had to trash most of the yard waste as it was material we didn’t want to self-seed again.  But as we canned fruit, made jam and jelly and fresh salads we managed to begin our pile.  Come the fall we had leaves that were raked up, corn stalks, dried after they decorated our front porch, and other trimmings from the yard piled high.  I was so excited, my thinking was that the snow would produce enough moisture and thermal blanket to ensure we would have the best soil come spring.

Reality check!  The leaves and corn stalks froze in the cold before the moisture could reduce them at all.  They in turn created a barrier to the water necessary to continue to the decomposition process, halting everything for a very long winter season.  When I turned the pile in late March, I was so disappointed to see this error in judgement.  No new soil to enrich our yard.

Not to be dissuaded, I began using a sprinkler on the pile.  My thinking: soak it through and it would work.  As the heat arrived, I was watering more frequently.  We were also having a large amount of work done to the outside of the house, so we had less vegetation to add.  When it came time to discuss gutters with an installer I had an epiphany: drain the deck gutter into the compost bin!

New gutter to water the compost bin.

We receive a maximum of seven inches of precipitation annually, would the system prove effective?  It is but a few days since the gutters were installed and we had an unpredicted thunderstorm this morning.  Success!  Those seven inches, plus the additional water from the roof-runoff will make a huge difference in how often I have to water the pile.  Now to ensure the fall cuttings do not make a cap against the snows of winter and we are in business all year.

The challenge of keeping my compost wet enough to decompose is such a microscopic thing when compared to the vision that created the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dam projects along the Columbia River.  We have visited the Grand Coulee Dam & Rocky Reach Dam this year.  Also close are the Rock Island, Wanapum and Priest Rapids Dams.  The water diverted for irrigation has produced a flourishing agricultural center here.  Potatoes, wheat, hay, onions, corn and seeds of onions, radishes, and carrots are among the plethora of produce coming out of the well watered Columbia Basin.  That they are non-petroleum sources of electricity is a whole different subject.

One would think that knowing the history of the Basin I would have seen the folly of my first thoughts sooner.  Sometimes experience is a better teacher than history.  This is possibly why we, as a species, continue to repeat our mistakes over and over.

One thought on “Composting & water in the Columbia Basin

  1. I remember Grandma’s compost pile and the smell of the decomposing vegetation. And as much as I don’t miss the smell I do miss the rich soil and beautiful gardens. And the lack of waste in the trash can. 🙂 I’m very glad your compost is on it’s way. I can’t wait to help you enrich your gardens next spring! Love you


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