If you’ve never heard the word, compost is just decomposed vegetable matter. Composting is the process whereby a specific type of decomposition is caused to occur within a specific aggregation of vegetable matter. I always win at Balderdash.
For my money, compost the very best garden fertilizer there is.
This is because, first, it mimics the way nature works – the unending cycle of birth, growth, maturation, decline, death, decay. Each generation of plants grows in and feeds off the decayed remnants of previous generations, eventually taking its place on the forest floor as the medium for future generations. There’s something wonderful in the idea of that – that if you compost, you’re less intruding into and disrupting nature and more participating in it; just bending it a bit to your purpose.
Unlike fertilizers, compost provides more for plants than just nutrition. Adding compost to soil improves its texture. The broken-down organic matter in compost is generally light, coarse-particled, spongy, not easily compacted, capable of absorbing and holding a good deal of moisture. Its opposite is a pure clay soil, which when soaked, packs into a dense, airless mass which later dries to the consistency of concrete.
“If you want to know what the soil in your garden should be like, go root around the floor of a forest.”
An airy, open, non-packing soil is what you want for your garden because the presence of air in the soil is important, as its ability to accept and hold moisture. Soil with a high level of organic matter will be like that. If you want to know what the soil in your garden should be like, go root around the floor of a forest. With the exception of pH, that’s what you’re aiming for.
By and large, compost is free, of course, which is great. And you don’t have to worry about chemical concerns, except whatever chemical residues might go into the compost bin on your potato peels and banana peels and whatnot. Pretty minimal. A bucket of compost doesn’t have a dirty big C-I-L stamped on it.
It does, however – there’s always a downside – take work, technique, and patience. Bummer.
I’ve had mixed success with compost. Like many people, what I often end up doing is simply throwing kitchen waste into the Darth Vader helmet composter I got from the MMSB, and doing nothing else about it. That’s not really composting. Just about all that accomplishes is pretending to be green, keeping your kitchen waste out of the landfill (that counts), and getting a few buckets of compost every few years. Not enough if you’re into gardening at all.
The mother of all piles
Years ago, I made a cubic yard of compost (that’s a lot) in three weeks. That was some serious composting, mister. My wife and I took an organic gardening course from John Evans, and he taught us the drill.
We built a crude three by three by three foot wooden bin. There are any number of ways to make this – four posts and chicken wire, four posts and horizontal wooden slats. Most anything will do, but you should be able to remove one complete side of the bin for emptying purposes.
We gathered up lots and lots of green vegetable matter. Lots. And lots.
John brought in and had dumped on his property the most massive truckload imaginable of pig manure. Whoa. Ever been close to 20 or 30 tons of pig manure? Not for the faint of heart. This was for the use of the whole class, not just the wife and me.
The third ingredient was ordinary garden soil.
We simply layered garden soil (a sprinkling), then a decent layer of pig manure, then a decent layer of green stuff. Repeat until your bin is full. A week later, we emptied the whole pile and shovelled it right back into the bin, to mix and aerate it. A week later, same thing. At the end of week three, it was done. Completely broken down into a homogeneous black mass of nice black, earthy-smelling compost. None of the original components could be identified. It didn’t stink. It was just compost. The garden went crazy. You literally had to get out of the way, the plants were growing so fast. Well, not literally, but it was amazing how much food we took out of our meazly ten by ten foot garden plot. It was the compost that did it.
But it was a lot of work. We were young.
Here’s what was going on there
If I remember my theory right, the plentiful manure was a ready and rich source of nitrogen to fuel the decomposition process, which is necessary, especially if you’re in a hurry. Compost is a source of nitrogen when it’s broken down, but it also needs nitrogen to fuel the process. If you try to compost without providing manure, it’ll be a much slower process.
The garden soil, just a sprinkling of it in layers, is like the culture you use to start a batch of yogourt. Like yeast in bread. It starts off a biological process – the specific one that you want to foster. It has to come out of the ground, not a bag.
The green matter can be anything. Eggshells are okay. All kitchen waste that’s vegetable in origin. No meat, fat, oil, or bones. No sticks or stones. Nothing like whole corn cobs that take years to break down. Nothing big like whole grapefruit, apples, oranges. Chop up hard or large things. If you mess this up, no worries – you’ll just have to pick or screen it out of your finished compost. You’ll see it.
“Years ago, I went to supermarkets … and came away with boxes upon boxes of green stuff.”
Years ago, I went to supermarkets and asked the produce manager for trimmings from their department, and came away with boxes upon boxes of green stuff. They won’t give it to you now. It HAS to go to the landfill, because they’re afraid you’ll eat it, get sick, and sue. And you’d win. That’s the heartbreaking, infuriating thing about the world we live in now. Don’t get me started.
A variety of green matter is best. Like what comes out of your kitchen. Grass clippings from mowing the lawn are okay in moderation, but a thick layer of fresh-cut grass will tend to mat into a thick, slimy layer of trouble. Don’t try to compost a cubic yard of grass cuttings. Dry grass is okay.
Avoiding slimy, gooey, stinky
Air is vital to composting. It’s a process of aerobic decomposition – aerobic meaning in the presence of air. That’s why John had us completely mix and turn the pile twice during the process. In the course of pitchforking or shovelling it into a wheelbarrow or whatever, you’re aerating it. When you put it back into the bin, there’s air throughout the pile. If air is missing, the process will turn into anaerobic decomposition, which process is better known as rotting. Think slimy, gooey, stinky. That’s why you can’t just throw in your kitchen waste and do nothing else. It goes anaerobic.
If you can’t or won’t empty your bin and then put it all back, use a long stick to drive holes into the pile, top to bottom, once in a while. That’ll help.
“So hot if you stick your hand into the pile … you’ll pull it back out real quick.”
The other reason for mixing the pile was to get it ALL to break down quickly. A good working pile heats up in the centre, so hot you’ll see it steam early in the morning or on fall days. So hot if you stick your hand into the pile up to the elbow, you’ll pull it back out real quick. I believe John told us it could reach 180 degrees. Whatever – it gets hot. That heat, by the way, ‘cooks’ any seeds that got into the pile and makes them unviable. This is important if you’re putting seed-bearing weeds into the pile. There’s nothing wrong with putting weeds in a pile, but if they contain seeds, those seeds could remain viable and you might unwittingly sow that seed into your garden when you spread the compost.
But the pile only heats up in the centre. Towards the top and sides, it’s closer to the outside air, which will tend to dissipate the heat and prevent buildup. So when you turn the pile, you’re introducing fresh material to the centre, and it gets its turn to cook.
Water is also an essential ingredient in composting. If your pile is open to rain, this is less of a concern. But if it has a cover like the MMSB composters, you should keep an eye on it, and if you think it might be dry (poke around and see), give it a good soaking.
Give it a shot
What I’ve described can be thought of as elite, Olympic-level composting. Few of us will do that. But at least you know what the ideal is, and what the processes and ingredients are. What parts of that you do will be your choice, and that will determine where your composting efforts fall on the scale running from amazing to washout.
Closing thoughts – I notice in the MMSB’s composting booklet (pretty good) that they recommend layering green matter with soil and also brown matter, the latter being carbonaceous things like dried leaves, grass, and straw. This is a good use for leaves, if you save them from your fall and spring rakings, but leaves tend to mat up very like grass clippings, so don’t make it a thick layer. They also recommend frequent mixing and aerating. Good advice.
“One of the nicer, more refined manures.”
I notice they don’t mention manure. Probably because it’s a given that manure is a scarce resource in most urban areas. And also probably because they figure mentioning manure to modern urban-dwellers would not exactly encourage them into composting. Icky poo. I get mine at Rainbow Riders on Mt. Scio Road. Horses. One of the nicer, more refined manures. But according to the pamphlet, you can completely do without it. I expect it just makes the decomposition process a little slower.
There’s tons of information on the internet about composting, if you want more than I’ve given you. The MMSB itself has a lot of information on it.
You’ll notice, when you get to the bottom of your compost pile, something in the order of a thousand million earthworms. These guys do a lot of the heavy lifting, especially in slow-working piles that never heat up. In fact, some people practise a completely different form of composting in their basements, using worms to break down their kitchen waste. They call it vermicomposting, and (bonus) it’s year-round.
Some people, doubtless, are interested in composting but have heard compost piles attract vermin, and that’s enough to turn them off. I’ve had a compost pile for decades, and only one spring did I see where my plastic composter had been chewed close to the ground, likely by a rat, probably in winter. But I never saw a rat first nor last.
I don’t mind rats, as long as they’re not in my bed. If you want to be organic, you’ve got to commit to participating in nature, warts and all. Rats are a part of nature, as surely as you and I are, along with black flies, mosquitoes, snakes, coyotes and seals. If you just can’t get past your irrational revulsion at mice and rats, get a cat. That’s what cats are for.
Okay. Composting. Tick.
Happy gardening. I’ve installed a foghorn in the middle of mine, so I can find it without ending up on the rocks.