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Composting for Critter Habitat

Written by Barbara Eisenstein,
Horticulture Outreach Coordinator
Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden

Each year I look forward to the burst of spring wildflowers in the planted strip along the sidewalk beside my house. I await the towering sunflowers that follow in the summer. The blues of the sages, ceanothus and penstemons calm me, while the bright orange and reds of the mallows and monkeyflowers bring excitement. The coolness of the woodland garden with its rich, deep greens is comforting.

The Compost Pile

But the compost heap is the wildness of my suburbia. It is teaming with life, with hunters, grazers, scavengers, and decomposers. They take the form of mammals, lizards, insects, snakes, spiders and unknowns. It is my favorite garden spot.
Lizard in Compost [B. Eisenstein]

The rear corner of my backyard is where I put most of my yard waste. It is not a pretty sight. A black plastic bin contains household vegetable waste, hopefully keeping the rats from the sweet, succulent food they so enjoy. Leaves, twigs, branches, and grass clippings are piled high.

Beautifying The Compost Pile

Though it is my favorite place, I realize it is not much to look at, and so I planted a tree mallow (Lavatera assurgeniflora) to keep it from view. Within about six months the mallow grew from six inches to four feet tall and at least 6 feet wide, effectively screening the pile of debris.

Easy Composting

I am a lazy composter. I throw the yard waste into a heap, spreading grass clippings over layers of twigs, branches and leaves. This ensures that the mound does not compress into an air-tight, anaerobic, rotting mess. I do not turn my compost, rather, I dig into it whenever the need arises.

What to Layer Onto Your Compost Pile

On top are the least decomposed leaves and grass. Slightly below is the partially decomposed material, perfect for mulch in my woodland gardens. Digging in a bit further I come across deep brown, rich organic soil. Occasionally I sprinkle this over my turf instead of using fertilizer. It has seeds from weeds, but on balance my lawn is dense and healthy with a tolerable quantity of weeds. I add perlite (available at most garden shops) to this rich organic soil to make potting soil. Again, my pots have some weeds, but for the most part, my container plants do well. I incorporate extra perlite for succulents and other plants requiring excellent drainage. This mix has worked well for pots of dudleyas, sages, and even a woolly blue curls, now two years old.

compost pile
Layers of Compost [B. Eisenstein]

Native Species Habitat In The Compost Pile

Whenever I climb the mound to add more greens, I see thousands of spiders scurry away. Digging into the pile I uncover large, juicy translucent grubs, and slender pink earthworms. Millipedes slither on. A startled lizard slides away as I turn over a log. Earwigs, sowbugs, snails and slugs join the mix. The compost heap is always warm as bacteria, in concert with all of these other critters, go about the everyday work of recycling organic debris into rich soil. It has a rich earthy smell.

And if all of this activity were not enough, now when I go to the pile, I see a carefully excavated hole, with a neat pile of fine soil beside it. My imagination goes wild trying to visualize this meticulous excavator. I don’t have gophers. Maybe it is Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

About Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden

RSABG is the largest botanical garden dedicated exclusively to our state's native plants. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the meandering pathways of this 86 acre natural setting which offers panoramic mountain views throughout the year. Self guided interpretive brochures are available at the California Garden Shop and enable visitors to fully enjoy the three distinct areas of the Botanic Garden: Indian Hill Mesa, the East Alluvial Gardens, and the Plant Communities.

The Botanic Garden is a private, non-profit organization, open to the public daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free; a donation of $4.00/person and $8.00/family is suggested.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden
1500 North College Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711-3157
Telephone: (909) 625-8767