This is a story about dirt.

More specifically it is about clay soil, stuff that’s great for rustic dinner plates, not so great for growing vegetables. The easy antidote, of course, is to dig in some nice compost then turn to more pressing matters like whether to grow the hybrid or the heirloom corn. But that’s not how this story goes. Our city lot was in need of serious soil enrichment and that’s expensive stuff.

So instead I installed a green cone, a waist-high contraption with a chute and perforated basin which turns kitchen scraps into compost. Our cone filled fast, faster even than it could turn out soil, and rather than do the obvious thing and purchase a second cone I decided to bury the overflow in the yard. This isn’t necessarily what the gardening books recommend. I just didn’t realize that my pile hadn’t gotten large enough to really heat up, or that my browns-to-greens ratio was all wrong.

In any case I was soon distracted by the discovery that I could get all of the free earthworms I’d ever wanted. The technique was to leave piles of leaves in the driveway and await the autumn rains — another way of saying it is that between Charlie and me, we couldn’t manage to get our yard waste to the curb. Some weeks later I returned to find dozens of earthworms hosting a carbon feast. Leaves and worms went right into the green cone, so these guys could continue breaking down our scraps.

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It took a summer for the earthworm population to get to full speed. There must be several thousand of ’em in there now, and I’ve probably moved double that number elsewhere in the yard, so these days things get processed pretty darn fast. If I can just ignore a pile for a few weeks, there’s a mound of gorgeous black soil when I come back, and it smells wonderfully. The difference between good dirt and clay is obvious in the picture above. Our worm casings are such good material that I use them to amend our community garden patch, where the soil is already of very high quality.

Next task for the thrifty gardener is learning to save seeds.

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