By Mark Staneart – I imagine I first heard the word “compost” about 40 years ago. Around the same time, I first encountered the word “organic.” Since then, the concepts represented by those words have become hopelessly complex and even ambiguous as more people search for answers to how to make compost. As “organic” gardening steadily grew in popularity, the word inevitably was adopted by corporate advertisers, and its meaning was diluted. Government regulation soon followed to complete the destruction of what once was a simple idea and a common, useful word.
“Compost” still has a definition on which most of us can agree, but it’s anything but simple. Over the years, I’ve seen scores of articles providing basic instruction, personal experiences, abstract theories and advanced, scholarly, annotated tutorials on how to make compost. Apparently, people ponder and worry endlessly about the exact temperature, moisture content and chemical composition of their rotting piles. Just as with nutrition, the literature on the topic has accumulated until the indecisive are doomed to remain so. Every imaginable theory and formula, and an endless parade of dubious and even preposterous assertions about the decomposition of matter are available for the curious and the gullible to consider. Just to get on with the business of growing the garden and eating well, therefore, I’ve resolved to rely on instinct over scholarship, and my first instinct is to keep it simple.
What could be simpler than compost? I want it to turn my garden soil into a better growing medium by providing texture and nutrition. I cultivate a variety of plants for food and decoration, big and small, annual and perennial, deciduous and evergreen, cooked and raw, roots and fruits, leaves and stems, flowers and seeds. Perennials come and go occasionally, annuals more frequently. If I were obsessively scientific, I could custom make a little compost for the specific needs of each plant, but in my varied but simple garden, one size must fit all.
I keep livestock and chickens, so composting chicken manure and used bedding is always available and forms the bulk of my compost. I eschew science in its application, although I’m vaguely aware of the nitrogen content in various types of manure. I apply fresh manure to the compost whenever the impulse strikes me and whenever I clean the chicken house. A compost pile is a lot like a stomach; whatever you put in at the top looks remarkably similar when it comes out at the bottom. You just can’t go wrong with manure.
With the exception of a few things which have been conceived in laboratories, everything decomposes, but some things take a little longer. Metals and plastics, for example, are of no use because, unless they are ground as fine as flour, they provide neither texture nor nutrition, and they are unlikely to decompose in my lifetime. Of course, I studiously avoid anything I suspect is poisonous, and my domestic critters get first right of refusal on anything I suspect is nutritious. I can compost it after it passes through the animal. Beyond those simple rules, almost anything goes.
The advice against composting meat and dairy products is rampant to the point of religious fervor, especially among vegetarians. The only simple and reasonable explanation for this advice is that some unwelcome wild animals—black bears, coyotes, raccoons and rodents, for example—may be attracted. I’m not especially concerned because my pile is inside the fence and because I suspect these omnivores are just as likely to be curious about a vegetarian pile. I don’t create concentrated masses of rotting meat, but I’m not concerned if some leftover flesh finds its way into the pile from time to time.
Paper products are virtually void of nutrition, but I don’t take any particular care to separate them. At worst, they are neutral, they may provide desirable texture and most of them decompose quickly with even a small amount of moisture. Other fibrous material, such as stems and stalks, decompose slowly and are difficult to move with a shovel or a pitchfork unless they are chipped, so I keep a separate, long-term pile for things like pruned vines and fruit tree branches, large garden plants like corn and sunflowers, etc. I cut them down to lengths of about three feet, and whenever I sweep up the sawdust in my wood shop or empty the ashes from the wood stove, I dump them into that pile to hold moisture and, thus, speed up decomposition. Yes, I hear the advice against sawdust and ashes—something about acidity and pH balance—but after a couple of years, when the bottom layers of my long-term pile start looking like dirt ready to be added to the garden beds, it doesn’t seem to matter.
On those rare occasions when I use a chipper, and I don’t want to leave the product where it lays, I can use it to mulch walkways rather than put it directly in the compost or the garden beds.
Sure. Gotta have it, but you don’t have to measure it. If your pile dries out sometimes or never gets enough water, the organisms which cause the pile to decompose won’t thrive, and you’ll have to wait longer for a pile of garbage and manure to become a pile of fertile dirt. If you are impatient and a bit compulsive, you’ll want to carefully measure and control the moisture in your pile, but if you have better things to worry about, you still can have a fertile garden, sooner or later.
My compost piles are near my garden beds and adjacent to a small patch of lawn. They get moisture during the dry season whenever I put the sprinkler on the grass. When I’m watering potted plants, I turn the hose on the compost piles if they look dry.
I never do it, not because I don’t believe in it; I’m just too lazy to remove a cover and put it back every time I feed the pile. If you’re up to it, a dark plastic cover will hold the moisture and raise the temperature, resulting in faster decomposition. A cover also is essential if you’re intent on controlling the moisture content and preventing the rain and snow from washing the nutrients into the soil beneath the pile. For me, the nutrients which leach off are just the cost of doing business. I still get high quality compost for my garden beds. If you have the space to rotate the location of your piles, you’ll find a superior place for a new garden bed where your compost used to be. The same is true for your poultry run.
All the known literature about composting insists on the necessity of turning the pile. Disturbing the pile once in a while distributes the heat and moisture more evenly, and aerates the pile, generally mixing the various materials more thoroughly, resulting in a consistent blend. When you move a well-turned pile to the garden, every shovel full looks the same. Turning, like covering and other steps in controlling moisture content, also promotes faster decomposition. In fact, a more tedious, scientific approach to compost usually is at least as much about impatience as it is about nutrients.
Esthetic considerations also lead to the scientific compost pile. My uncovered, unturned pile of random ingredients isn’t pretty, and around the edges, it doesn’t decompose as quickly as the steamy core. When I move it to the garden beds, I still can identify some egg shells, citrus peels and avocado pits, but my garden doesn’t mind. The corn grows just as tall, the tomatoes just as firm and sweet, and I cover it with mulch anyway.
Material that is not fully decomposed is likely to contain active, unwanted seeds leading to the dreaded task of weeding the garden. A properly moistened, well-heated, well-turned, evenly decomposed compost pile will sterilize all the seeds it contains, but no matter how pristine our compost and no matter how thoroughly we mulch, weeds still grow and we still pull them out. Or not. I’ve harvested a lot of food from plants that have volunteered, but whether I pull them out or let them grow, I just can’t distinguish the volunteers out of the compost from the airborne and bird borne varieties.
Serious composters like to test their finished product to help them decide what goes into future piles. Some even use store-bought nutrients to achieve the desired balance. I might do the same if I were in the business of packaging and selling compost, but all I’m doing is growing vegetables. If any or all of the vegetables I plant fail to thrive, I will test my soil and, if necessary, add the store-bought stuff directly to the garden. I wouldn’t think of testing the raw manure, so I don’t test the compost either. If I’m going to worry about the precise balance of nutrients, the garden beds are where I’ll focus my attention. As long as my garden is producing what I’m expecting for my table, I have no need to know what it will produce in a test tube.
Containers and Compost Bin Design
Just an improvement on a plastic cover, a tumbler is appealing because it makes the turning so much easier, and it panders to our impatience by turning things like manure, grass, straw and well chopped table scraps into rich loam in as little as a couple of weeks. But it takes many tumblers to equal the quantity which can be produced in piles on the ground. You can buy or build your own composter with convenient doors and lids. Some even have bells and whistles like thermostats, automatic waterers and mechanical cultivators, but if your goal is just to grow some vegetables, the cost is out of proportion to the results. I make three-sided enclosures from salvaged pallets fastened together with zip ties. They last at least three years.
I’ve never been moved to put anything in my piles for odor control, but if the neighbors a quarter-mile away are offended, and the bears are converging from miles around, your pile must be fermenting without decomposing, and you need to be a little more scientific. On the other hand, it is garbage and manure. If your olfactory sensibilities can’t tolerate a modest acquaintance with these fragrances, organic gardening may not be the hobby for you.
The simple, basic truth about learning how to make compost is that the best fertilizer is free. You don’t need to be a scientist or a tireless laborer to get it. Without studying too often, worrying too much, or working too hard, I make fine compost, grow successful gardens, and I never send any organic material to the landfill. From the first time I stuck a shovel into the ground, those have been the simple goals. Good luck learning how to make compost and remember to K.I.S.S.
Originally published in Countryside May / June 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.