Culled from animal pens and mixed with hay and dirt, the compost makes for excellent fertilizer, according to zoo officials. (Staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
It is a sort of secret garden.
Through the winding paths of the Hillcrest Zoo lie four heaping piles of animal excrement.
Culled from animal pens and mixed with hay and dirt, the cocktail makes for excellent fertilizer, but interest in the enriched soil has waned since the compost project was launched about half a decade ago, according to zoo officials.
“People aren’t as interested (in the fertilizer) as they once were,” said zoo curator Mark Yannoti, who said the compost program, intended to be a public resource, has “faded away.”
Atop the largest excrement pile, which reaches about 10 feet into the air, peacocks roost. Attracted to heat radiated from the piles, the peacocks have adopted the piles for egg-laying purposes, Yannoti said. Yannoti welcomes the public to cart away the excrement.
“This stuff is better than most of the potting soil people buy,” said Yannoti, as he turned the pile with a pitchfork, an essential step in the creation of a healthy compost.
Turning a compost allows oxygen to seep into the pile, thereby feeding the microbes that break down the organic material, according to www.compostinfo.com.
The four piles hidden near the edge of the zoo represent different stages of decomposition. The oldest pile is also the smallest. Its moist soil, a rich brown color, can speed along the growth of vegetables, grass, flowers and all sorts of crops, Yannoti said.
Some zoos sell such soil, Yannoti said. At Hillcrest, the piles grow so large they must be carried away to the Clovis landfill periodically, he said.
“It’s free. Come by and load up,” he said.
Start a compost of your own:
1. Pile up leaves and grass clippings.
2. Start by finding a good place for your pile — somewhere handy to the garden and kitchen, yet out of plain sight.
3. Corral that compost with a simple frame. Roll 6 feet of stiff wire-mesh fencing (4 feet tall with 1/2-inch mesh, called hardware cloth) to make a ring. Leave three cut ends of wire exposed to secure the ring to itself and stand it up.
4. Build a more permanent compost bin from slatted wood or recycled pallets.
5. Leave it open on one side to add, turn and dig out compost from the bottom. Do not cover the top.
6. Understand the two basic elements that make compost: Green (grass clippings, old annuals) and brown (dry leaves, soil) garden debris. Try for a balance of one part green to one to two parts brown, until the mix is damp but not wet.
7. Put a layer of leaves 4 inches thick in the bottom of the pile, then 1 inch of good garden soil. Next add 2 inches of grass clippings or old plants, then more brown and green in alternate layers.
8. Turn with a manure or spading fork one week after building the pile. Begin burying coffee grounds, eggshells and green kitchen waste into the pile and turn it weekly. It’ll be compost in about two months.
9. Make another ring or bin and turn the compost from one into the other to mix it up neatly and aerate the pile for fastest results. (Start another pile after this one has grown to 3 cubic feet.)
10. Begin digging out compost from the bottom of the pile when it is turned over and the component parts cannot be recognized any longer after. Dig out shovelfuls of crumbly brown compost to use in the garden, and use the partially composted matter for mulch or to start another pile.