Dan Corum sees elephants not just as lovable beasts but also as key contributors to the most sought-after compost money can buy.
John Granen

Entremanure Dan Corum knows his compost

Jenny Cunningham

Visitors to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo like to watch keepers feed the animals, but most people don't give a lot of thought to what happens to the, ahem, by-product of all that munching and grazing.

Savvy gardeners, however, yearn to take something home from the zoo. West Seattleite Sean Reynolds is one of the chosen few. He won a lottery to load his truck full of, to put it delicately, dung.

"I see you brought some help," zoo employee Dan Corum says as he greets the young dad in a green pickup. "Yeah," Sean jokes, gesturing to the tiny toddler in his safety seat. "You gotta have someone to shovel it."

Elephants, hippos, gazelles, and oryx all do their part to create some downright exotic compost. The rest of the job is completed by Corum, the new "Dr. Doo" at the zoo. Corum takes manure from 23 herbivores and composts it with the animals' sawdust bedding, as well as green branches and grass clippings from the extensive gardens of Woodland Park. The finished product is a sweet-smelling blend called Zoo Doo, which many Seattle gardeners swear is the secret to their growing success.

"This stuff made a difference," Sean, the home gardener, says. "Friends and relatives came by to admire the fertility of my garden."

Corum says plants thrive with Zoo Doo because the compost is alive. "I like to think of this as the zoo within a zoo," Corum says as he checks the temperature inside a steaming 8-foot pile of compost under construction. The thermometer reads 142°, the perfect temperature for killing pathogens yet preserving nutrients.

How did the compost get so hot? "Creatures are in there enjoying themselves," Corum explains. "Eating, reproducing, and creating a lot of energy. It's truly a jungle in there."

King of compost
The bearded 44-year-old spent 15 years as a rhetoric instructor at local colleges and universities. Three years ago he discovered that organic gardening was more important to him than anything else.

"I decided I wanted to make compost for the rest of my life," Corum says. "I just love making compost." And he couldn't have chosen a more perfect place to do it.

"In Seattle, people love their gardens," he says. "I couldn't imagine a place more supportive of making natural connections."

INFO: Woodland Park Zoo ($10; 601 N. 59th St.; www.zoo.org or 206/684-4800); for info on buying Zoo Doo, see "Got Doo?".

Got Doo?

Buy it. You can buy packaged, fully composted Zoo Doo (pint $4.95, 2 gal. $13) at Woodland Park's ZooStore (for details on free admission if you're going to the store only, call 206/548-1535; see address below). To buy enough compost to enrich your vegetable garden or mulch a yard's worth of perennials, enter the Zoo Doo lottery. In October, about a third of those who entered will get to load up a truckload of black gold ($35-$50). To enter the lottery, send a postcard between September 19 and 30 to Woodland Park Zoo (Attention: Zoo Doo), 601 N. 59th St., Seattle, WA 98103. For details, visit www.zoo.org/zoo_info/special/zoodoo.htm or call 206/625-7667.

Build it. Alternatively, make your own compost. Dan Corum says building a compost pile in your yard is easy: "Build a pile and they will come!" You can make an open pile or purchase a compost bin to keep materials tidy. Seattle residents can buy a subsidized compost bin (two food waste bins $40, yard waste bin $25) through the Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline (206/633-0224).

Feed it. Pile on equal amounts of nitrogen-rich "green" (coffee grounds, grass clippings, horse or cow manure, and fruit and vegetable scraps) and carbon-rich "brown" (leaves and shredded paper) materials.

Water it. Compost piles should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Mix it. Using a spading fork, turn the outside layer of the pile into the interior a couple of times in the first two weeks; then let the pile sit for three to six months.

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