Tuesday, August 21, 2018 

Building Compost Piles at River Road Gardens

October 18, 2013

Urban farmers Jon McNamara and Emily Mabry operate River Road Gardens, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project on the campus of the Tucson Waldorf School. The multiple beds of Jon and Emily’s farm lie on the south side of the school property, alongside a busy county road that is the major thoroughfare on the north side of Tucson, and the whole school property is desert, just south of the Catalina Mountain foothills, part of the Sonoran Desert that extends south into Mexico.


River Road Gardens moved onto the property five years ago, when the school first began to develop its elementary school campus, and the first deed of the farmers was the building of compost piles.

Compost, named from Latin words that mean “putting together,” has, since the very early days of farming, been used to bring nurturing soil stability to our food producing activities.

pumpkins peppers

When McNamara and Mabry first established the garden beds, they introduced compost to provide humus to the mineral rich compacted desert ground of the farm. Seasonally, they add compost to bring balance and add nutrition to the hard working beds, and to maximize their efforts, they apply biodynamic preparations and build the beds with scientific artistry.

It is a job fit for more than two. Michael Wright, who enjoys eating the food from the gardens and who finds satisfaction in the “community support” part of CSA, joined the crew in compost building this fall. He reports:


Saturday, October 5, 2013

The call is out from the CSA, compost piles will be built Saturday and help is needed. I show up around 8 a.m. and the work has already begun. River Road Gardens depends on the labor of Wwoofers. The Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, (WWOOF) is a loose network of national organizations that facilitate placement of volunteers on organic farms and many Wwoofers come to Tucson eager to practice dry land farming.

Building a compost pile Building a compost pile

Today some Wwoofers are breaking up straw bales and watering down the straw. Others are gathering pitchforks and rakes, the tools of the trade, while Jon fires up one of the tractors that will cart the basic materials from where they now stand on the garden grounds to the location of the compost piles some distance away.

Jon has been at it since 4 am, seeing the first light of day break above Oro Valley as he made the drive north out of Tucson to pick up the borrowed tractor that would be so necessary for the day’s work. When I arrive, the decision is made to go up the road to a neighbor and borrow another tractor, and I will get a chance to learn the intricacies of forward, back, up and down, and bucket tilt.

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The footprint for the first pile is laid out with straw and brushy weeds from the garden, a rectangle six feet wide and twenty feet long that will rise about four feet high and flatten out on top. As the tractor drivers deliver to the pile the first layer of horse manure, provided gratis from a local horse stable, the watering of the pile continues with two hoses. Getting the materials well- soaked is key to the process, the water being necessary for the pile to heat up and begin decomposition.

We continue with a layer of brushy weeds, then more straw, and now a new element: long leafy green pumpkin vines that have finished their work providing beautiful fat pumpkins, harvested a week earlier, the vines now more bulky green material for the growing pile.


Next, another 10 inch layer of manure, then brushy weeds, more straw, more manure, five or six layers making a pile high enough to produce the bulk and heat that fuels the composting process.

The work continues through the day, layers of straw, brushy weeds, garden green matter, and manure, delivered by the dynamic tractor drivers and all raked out flat as the layers pile up and are thoroughly watered by the willing Wwoofers.

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Humans tire and machines need periodic maintenance, but as darkness falls on the farm there stand six proud compost piles. The farmers, Wwoofers, and volunteers are tired but happy workers, nothing left but to put away the tools and take the tractors home, then think about the work that the next day will bring.

Early Sunday, the farmers applied biodynamic compost starter to the piles, and on the following Monday Emily Mabry, with the students in her garden classes at the school, inserted biodynamic herbal preparations in the piles.

After some weeks of breakdown and transformation, the piles will be crumbly brown humus, ready to be added to the deep- dug garden beds, continuing the process of growth and decay that is life on the farm, really quite simple, but as with all simple things, profound.



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