I’ve been thinking a lot about composting over the past couple of weeks. Probably because turning my compost pile is on my list of tasks but also because planting season is winding down and I’m beginning to turn my attention to other aspects of the garden. Hands-down, how to compost is one of the questions I get most often in my consultations with clients.
Getting good at composting is all about taking the time to understand the science of decomposition, mixing the right ingredients together, letting natural systems do the work and, ultimately, ushering in a pretty incredible transformation. This transformation helps build your soil, which is a key aspect of your garden, the foundation upon which healthy food and a resilient life are built.
And as with so many processes in the garden, composting becomes a teacher for other aspects of our lives.
Despite the long list of garden tasks over the past few weeks, I’ve naturally been preoccupied, saddened, and angered with what is happening in our country and in the world. I’ve been reflecting on how we can take this moment in time – with the pandemic, the civil unrest, the injustice against communities of color, the divisiveness in our national politics, and transform it into something regenerative, something that helps build a more just and equitable future for all.
And that’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about composting. In composting, we understand and appreciate that decomposition does not happen right away. Transformation is a process and a balancing act. If we don’t have enough moisture in a compost pile, it’s static; if we add too many kitchen scraps, it will putrefy; if we don’t aerate the pile, it will start to smell.
We can’t transform kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich soil overnight, just like we can’t transform our society overnight. Both processes need our participation and take time, observation, attention, and understanding.
Like everything that I’ve attached myself to, whether it’s gardening or social justice, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are playing a long game, one that demands patience, care, and community building. From observing patterns in natural systems, we also know that disruption can lead to regeneration.
So though my video is about composting, I hope that it also gets you to think about the promise and possibility of transformation. In it, I take you through the ins and outs of building a hot compost pile. This video is taken from the Building Healthy Soil Module of my Online Edible Backyards Series.
On a practical level, my intent is to clear up any questions you may have with regards to composting. In a broader sense, my hope is that as you build your compost pile, you are reminded of that process of transformation and the part you need to play in it, both in your garden and in your community.
I’ve accepted that I may never see the change I want to see in the world, but I take solace in the fact that I’ll play a small part in its transformation to a more resilient future.
Enjoy the video and let me know if you have any additional questions in the comments below!
I'm not sure about you but for me, composting in the winter time is a bit of a challenge. Though it's possible to insulate an outdoor pile and add high nitrogen materials to keep the pile cooking, in my opinion, it's not really worth the time and energy.
After I've thrown the kitchen scraps that I can to my chickens, I do two things with the remaining material:
This video is actually from the Building Healthy Soil Module of my Online Edible Backyards Series (which is available at a 25% discount here).
In having a few options for composting, I am following the permaculture principle of 'each function is supported by multiple elements'. In other words, I want to compost and cut down on my waste. How do I do that? I have three different ways: feeding scraps to my chickens, an outdoor compost pile, and an indoor worm bin. Make sense? So when one option, like the outdoor pile, is unavailable, then I have a few other options to fulfill this function of zero waste. Building redundancy in your system increases your resilience.
If worms kind of make you squirm and/or you don't want to don your parka and trudge through the snow to your compost pile, then I also want to let you know about the business, Happy Trash Can. Happy Trash Can offers a residential curbside composting service. Even if you don't need this service yourself, I'd love it if you passed along this information to your neighbors and friends. Learn more about them here.
Whether you have an outdoor compost pile, an indoor worm bin, or have someone picking up your kitchen scraps, let's all work together to divert as much food waste from our landfill as possible!
Enjoy the video,
I've heard this time and again during my composting workshops. It usually comes in the form of a confession, “I bought the bin, added some materials but I don't really do anything with it and nothing seems to be happening.” Sound familiar? A static compost pile could happen for a variety of reasons. Here are the five key elements you should keep in mind when building a compost pile. Abide by these five guidelines and your compost should be cooking in no time!
High carbon and high nitrogen materials are the building blocks of the compost pile. High carbon materials are usually woody, tough, dry, and coarse (see table on left). They provide the bulk of your compost pile and are used as an energy source by decomposer organisms. High nitrogen materials are soft, moist, and more pliable. During the decomposition process, proteins in high nitrogen materials are broken down into amino acids, nitrites, and nitrates that are used by decomposer organisms to grow and reproduce.
The ideal food mix for decomposers is most closely achieved by adding equal amounts of high carbon and high nitrogen materials to your compost pile. Alternate 4-6 inches of high carbon materials with 4-6 inches of high nitrogen materials, as you build your pile.
Your compost pile should be the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. In our dry Montana climate, this is likely the reason why your compost 'is not doing anything'. Bacteria become dormant at lower moisture levels, slowing down the decomposition process. Expect that your pile may need water every time you turn it. In addition, be sure to cover your pile with a sheet of black plastic (with holes punched in it for aeration), an old tarp, or use a bin so as to keep the moisture in. Lastly, locate your pile in a semi-shady location, protected from desiccating winds.
Be sure to turn your pile regularly (ideally once/week) to encourage aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition rather than anaerobic decomposition. Every time you turn the pile, you flush the system with more oxygen, leading to an increase in microbial activity that speeds up the decomposition process.
In order for a compost pile to heat up and sustain large populations of decomposer organisms, there must be an adequate volume of materials. The minimum sized pile is 3' x 3' x 3'. Any volume below this size would likely be another reason why a compost pile isn't breaking down. Piles can be built much larger, but anything above 5' x 5' x 5' becomes cumbersome if it is turned by hand.
Plant materials will break down faster if they are chopped into smaller pieces. If you don't want to find that corncob two months later, be sure to break it up before adding it to your pile. Two-inch pieces are ideal, but whatever you can do to bruise and break up the plant material will help.
If you have constructed your pile correctly, it should start to do something! The pile will shrink by 30% in about a month. Compost is considered finished when you are able to turn your pile and it no longer heats up over 110°F. In two to three months, the pile will be reduced by about 50% and look like finished compost!
One last piece of advice...
Oftentimes, the reason your compost pile isn't doing anything is that you are not doing anything! Be sure to design a system and a location that is convenient and fits with your lifestyle and your needs. Remember, design is crucial to any system's success. I locate my compost pile in a convenient area near my house and garden, and often on my garden bed once fall rolls around. This creates the least amount of work for me when the compost is finished and ensures that I visit the pile with enough frequency to maintain it.
Do you have composting tips and tricks that you would like to share? Leave a comment or question below.