Composting – A Different Point of View


I have a very different view of composting. I talk a lot about composting and using homegrown compost in a variety of ways in your garden. Every time I mention composting I get a lot of questions about the whole topic.

Understanding

One word about this. Some of my thoughts on compost and composting will run counter to a lot of the information you see from other sources. You should decide for yourself which advice you want to follow.

First, we need to understand compost. What is compost? Everyone in the gardening world talks about it but most people aren’t sure exactly what compost is.

The short answer is compost is decomposed organic matter. That definition uses three general multisyllabic words which are the real problem for most people. Let’s come at this from a different angle.

Into the Forest

We are going to take a walk into a virtual forest. It could also be a grassland prairie. The concepts are the same. As we walk into the forest, look around. Above us spreads a canopy of trees. Below is an understory of bushes and smaller trees. Closer to the ground are plants that range from knee-high to short grasses, lichens, moss, and ground covers. The landscape is all beautiful to look at but what is interesting is what comes next.

What’s Missing?

Look. There is no bare ground here. If there isn’t something growing on or in the soil, it is covered with a layer of stuff that ranges in size from fragments of dead leaves to the huge trunks of fallen trees.
No bare ground.

Kneel and pull back a bit of the largest debris that lays on top. As you pull back successive layers of the debris, the size of the particles gets smaller and darker until you find a layer of soil that is slightly damp. This last layer that feels so good and smells like the forest is the soil. The stuff you dug through is compost.

It’s all About Decomposition

Compost is everything that falls onto the forest floor and begins to decompose. Year after year, season after season, the successive layers come down. Slowly but surely the material decomposes. This decomposition is not just the agency of the bacteria and fungi in the soil. The earthworms, nematodes, insects and other organisms that inhabit this material all work together to make this transformation happen.

What Else is Missing

Now let’s stop and think about this. No one comes into the forest and puts this material into a fancy bin or barrel and turns it once a week. I haven’t seen anyone turning this material and mixing it. No one adds starters or digesters or anything else, but without fail, given time, everything. . . and I mean everything. . . that dies in the forest is eventually composted back into the soil.

So What is all the fuss about Composting

I thought about this a lot and wondered what was behind all the fuss about making compost. It seemed pretty straight forward to me. Take everything that came out of my garden, my kitchen, my landscape and put it in a pile somewhere and let nature take control.

I know this goes against 90% of the advice you can find in garden books, internet sites and from the gardening gurus. Most of the conflict is in all the don’ts that usually are at the top of all the advice on composting. Each of these don’ts raised a question with me. The question was usually why not?

The Don’ts

  • put meat in your compost pile
  • put bread in your compost pile
  • put oils in your compost pile
  • put paper in your compost pile
  • put mac and cheese in your compost pile (yes I have actually seen this on a list)
  • put whole eggshells in your compost pile

The DO’s that don’t make sense either

  • build boxes (or rollers, barrels, bins, etc.)
  • watch out for rats and mice and other creepy-crawly things
  • make sure that your carbon/nitrogen ration is just right
  • keep your pile moist but not to wet
  • turn it (daily, weekly, monthly depending on who you read)
  • check the internal temperature (with an expensive special thermometer)
  • install PVC aerating tubes

My Rules for Composting

I find that almost everyone has a set of rules/guidelines that, according to them, you must follow to have a successful compost pile. So, I decided to write my own rules. These are suggestions really, not rules.

My Compost Suggestions

Find a Place – Find a place on the edge of your garden where you can build a pile. It needs to be out of the way because it is going to be there a while. You may want to set aside enough space so that you can build several piles. It should be close enough to your garden that you can get your finished compost to where it is being used easily.

Build a Pile – That’s right, start stacking stuff up. What kind of stuff? Everything. If it was once alive or part of something alive, put it in the compost pile. Now I see eyebrows going up! You read that right. If it was once part of something alive, you can compost it.

As your pile starts to grow, nature will turn on its organic factory. You may not notice it at all. At the base of the pile, things are beginning to happen. Bacteria and other microscopic organisms are beginning to spread. They
know there is more food available and they need more help. They call in the reinforcements. At the same time, the fungi are getting the same signals. As this happens, all the higher-order critters are answering the call. Earthworms and insects. At the bottom of that pile sitting on the edge of your garden, there is a growing active community working for you and you don’t even have to pay them.

They get everything that they want and need from that pile of stuff you are building. Understand, this is not a quick process. It may take a year before you can harvest that first batch of beautiful compost from the bottom of the pile. But think about it.

  • You haven’t turned it.
  • You haven’t put much effort at all into it other than adding new stuff to the top.

By and large, people today are in a hurry. They want their compost now or in 3 weeks. Unfortunately, nature isn’t on that kind of schedule. Given time, the processes work just as they were intended. Patience is the thing we need to cultivate as much as anything else in the garden.

Links and Resources

There are some great resources on the web that you can access for more information about composting.

The Survival Gardener

Don’t let the name of the website throw you off. This gardening website is a wealth of information especially about starting plants from seeds, propagation, and gardening in general.

If you sign up for their email newsletter, you get access to a free book on composting that is one of the best free things I have found.

Howard Garrett – The Dirt Doctor

Howard Garrett is a landscape architect and organic gardening guru from Dallas Texas. Affectionately knows as “The Dirt Doctor” his website has a vast library of articles, videos, and podcasts on almost every subject imaginable about gardening and landscaping. He is also into the organic living philosophy and has information about that as well. On his website, visit the library which is nicely organized alphabetically by topic and can be searched easily. Look up composting for a number of articles.

West Texas Organic Gardening

No list of links would be complete without our own local offerings. While our list of articles is still growing it already contains information that is dedicated to gardening organically in the unique climate of West Texas.

Here are some books we found on Amazon that might be of help as you start composting.