Composting: True Plant Food

What comes from the earth, shall return to the earth.

Composting is the most important thing you can do for your organic garden. Start your compost bins before you even start planning and preparing your garden soil, that way you will have plenty of wonderful organic fertilizer. It takes several months to a year to have mature compost ready to use, anyway. Set up your pile area or bins, and add yard wastes while you are cleaning things up. All that grass and weeds you remove from your garden area, and leaves you rake up can go in, along with grass clippings from mowing.

Composting for Beginners

I see a lot of sources trying to over-complicate composting. Composting is very simple, easy, and not only free, but will save you money and benefit your plants.

1. "I don't have room to compost!"
If you have at least a 2 by 6 foot open area of yard, or room under your sink or on your balcony or patio for a bucket, you can compost.

2. "Composting is expensive to start, I can't afford one of those fancy bins!"
Composting is FREE! If you want to be neat and tidy about it, you can gather up some really cheap or free materials to make bins.

3. "Composting is complicated."
Its not. Its as easy as throwing things on the ground...that came out of the ground to begin with. If it rots, it composts.

4. "Compost piles stink."
Not if you do them right, and don't add the wrong things.


"These are not my beautiful compost bins!" ...but random examples taken off the internet.

I have not made a successful kitchen worm-bin composter, so I will not get into that. My specialty is the more natural, easy method of having an on-ground compost pile. You can search elsewhere for kitchen worm bins if that is what you need.

Building your bins
Typically a good compost pile is at least 3x3 to 4x4 feet. You want it big enough it will not dry out quickly, but also not so big that oxygen cannot circulate and you cannot reach all of your pile to mix it. You should also have at least two seperate bins: One to add fresh material to, and one that can be allowed to rest and mature. three bins are even better, as it allows you to have a fresh pile, a maturing pile, and a third with ready-to-use compost.

You can clear the area by removing weeds and grass if you like, or build directly on top of the grass. If you have plenty of compostables to start with, they will kill the grass there anyway. I have seen piles built on top of a "patio" of paving bricks, but I believe having the pile in direct contact with the soil is best. Earthworms and other helpful critters have direct access to the pile, and you have the benefit of the soil's natural bacteria that can get to work immediately.

Materials you can use to border your pile and limitless. Bricks, landscaping timbers, logs, fencing material, boards, wooden pallates. The bins I currently have are 4x4 landscaping timbers cut in 4-foot lengths and set in the ground a foot or so deep. The sides are plastic lattice to allow air flow, resist rotting, and keep material contained. There are 4 seperate bins, and each one is about 4x4 feet. I have one for fresh, one for rest, one for ready, and one for manure. I prefer to keep manure seperate from the rest of the compost since it is so rich, and add it gradually as needed. My family has also used wooden pallats, and hardware cloth or animal fencing for sides.

A very simple bin can be made with a circle of fencing material. Just cut a piece long enough to make a good-sized circle, and wrap the open ends of the wire around the other end. This type of bin can be easily moved around, is super cheap to make, and can fit in tight corners of a yard or garden.

Filling your bins
Now that you have your bins built, what do you put in them? Anything organic can be composted. If it came from the earth, and once lived and breathed, it will rot. Beginners may want to stick to the simple stuff though, since some materials take longer to compost, or would cause offensive odors. Scraps of raw fruits and vegetables are the perfect start. All those carrot tops, apple cores, banana peels, coffee grounds and tea bags. Eggshells can also be composted and are great for the soil, but you'll want to crush them up when you are working with your pile. Just step on them a few times. You'll want to put dry things in too...regular newspapers (not the slick kind), toilet paper and paper towel rolls, brown paper, non-slick cardboard, dry leaves, grass clippings, tissues, toilet paper if you do not flush it. If you have pets like rabbits, hamsters, birds, reptiles, ect. you can put their "messes" in the pile. Wood shavings, newspaper, poop, uneaten food, and hair.

Generally you want a good combination of "Green" and "Brown" ingredients.

Green:
Grass clippings
Garden trimmings
Green leaves
Livestock manure
Fruit and vegetable scraps
Coffee grounds and filters
Tea leaves and bags

Brown:
Wood chips and sawdust
Pine and fir needles
Straw and hay
Dry grass and leaves
Nut shells
Stale bread
Shredded paper


Collecting material to send to the pile: Just as you have a trash can to collect your garbage before you take it outside, or a recycle bin for cans and bottles, you need a catch-all for compostables. I usually use a plastic tub from spreadable margarine (leftover from when my dad lived here, I don't buy that junk), a potato salad container or other decent-sized plastic bucket, or whatever bowl happens to be handy. Lately with the amount of veggies and eggs my family eats, I can fill a large mixing bowl in two days. I dump it into the bins or have my son take it out for me whenever it gets full, but you should not leave it more than a few days. It will start to mould and smell, attracting gnats, and you will end up with vinegar in the bottom of the container from the fermenting liquids. I keep a compostables bucket in the bathroom now, as well, for tissue and paper, paper rolls, cotton balls, the swabs with cardboard sticks, and hair. A compost bucket can be left on the counter top if use use a small one and empty it regularly, or under a counter, or in any other convenient location. I find the margarine or potato salad tub fits perfectly between my spice rack and utensil caddy, on the counter I use to prepare meals. I can toss everything in there as I cook.

What do you NOT put in a pile? Plastic, obviously, as it does not break down. Some plastics are bio or photodegradable, but they are still not a natural substance, and take a long time. You should not add anything greasy or oily. Meat or fish scraps, or foods cooked with oil or butter will cause bad odors, promote foul bacteria, and attract flies, roaches, and other vermin. You should also not compost feces from pet cats or dogs, or humans if you are a beginner or live in an urban environment.

Rot is Hot...literally.
Ok, so now you have stuff in your pile. From the moment you put your scraps on the ground, nature begins working. Bacteria in the soil break down the vegetation, and creatures like earthworms, pillbugs, crickets, and other creepy-crawlies feast on the delicious meals you serve them and poop out...compost! Earthworm poo is by far the healthiest thing for the soil. These little bugs crawling in and amongst your compost and nibbling away also aids the bacteria in moving throughout the pile. But nobody likes a dry meal or a stuffy house...so your pile needs moisture and oxygen as well. In the presence of oxygen, anaerobic - the stinky bacteria - cannot survive. Molds are also inhibited by an oxygen-rich environment and regular mixing. You should turn your pile at least once a month if not more. Use a garden fork, cultivator, or shovel, and just mix the stuff around like you would with something you are cooking. If the pile looks a bit dry, water it. It should be moist like a squeezed sponge, but not soggy. Moisture promotes the beneficial bacteria, and helps out those little critters.

The decomposition process creates heat, which encourages more decomposition. On cold days you may see steam rising from your compost, and if you put your hand in it (mmm...) it will be quite warm. This not only makes a good environment for your bacteria and critters, but bad bacteria cannot survive at those temperatures. You may discover small white lizard or snake eggs buried in your compost, so be careful not to damage them. The eggs need a warm damp place to mature, and dry out easily if uncovered. Their shells are soft and will puncture easily. If you find eggs, try not roll them around too much, but move them to a safer corner of your compost pile. All lizards and snakes will eat insects and other pests that might harm your garden, and most snakes are not poisonous. I often dig up sleeping toads while turning my compost, too. Leave them be, and just move them to a safe spot and cover them back up. Toads do NOT give warts, and while they aren't exactly beautiful to most people, they can eat their weight in insects every night.

No smell, no pests.
Your pile should not have any bad odors, or attract unwanted guests if you do it right. Ants will build up in a pile if meat scraps are present, or the pile is not turned often enough. You may have visits from raccoons or possums, but they will not stay. They rummage through garbage cans anyway, so they are most likely already visiting your home.

It's ready!
"Mature" compost should look like rich, black dirt. If you have multiple bins, you can scoop "unripe" materials into your fresh material bin to start a new batch. Compost can be mixed in with the soil, or sprinkled on top and around plants at any time.

Would you like tea with your compost?
Compost tea is a wonderful liquid fertilizer. You can make a "teabag" out of an old sock and steep it in a bucket of water, or make a screen to fill with compost and pour water through. The result will look like...tea! Use it at recommended intervals for fertilizing your plants.




Manure

What a load of shit! Pardon all the manure jokes.
I've considered making a manure-specific set of compost bins and labelling them for "new shit", "old shit", and "good shit". If you live on a farm, or near one, or have friends who do, you have an endless supply of wonderful plant food. If you don't, but would like to compost manure, there are many places you can go to get some free. Livestock yards, small-scale meat-processing plants, and local farms should all have a surplus of manure and would be glad to let you take it off their hands. (sorry hehe)

What kind of shit? Herbivore, only. Cow, horse, goat, sheep, rabbit, poultry... Rabbit manure is very good. It holds a lot of moisture, and is ready to go into your garden straight from the source. No need to let it mature. Other manures should be allowed to compost until they no longer look like poop. The end result will be rich, black, and crumbly. And not smell like shit. I am not sure about pig feces, since nobody around here raises pigs...but if they are fed an herbivorous diet, it should be fine.

Bad shit! If you are a beginner, do not use dog or cat poop. They smell bad (as compared to cow or horse manure) and contain a lot of harmful bacteria. If you do decide to use it, they need a much longer composting time. Also, cat feces contains a toxic bacteria that can remain in the soil. It can be particularly harmful to children and pregnant women. Care should be taken and gloves used if you have cats in your area that use the bathroom in your garden of flowerbeds. Human urine and feces CAN be composted and is not as harmful to the earth as many people like to claim, but you can find other sources for humanure and composting toilets. It is when we confine our wastes to anaerobic environments and the constant mixing with water that is present in septic tanks and sewage systems that it poses a health risk. If you think about it, flushing your crap down with the same water that ends up coming back to your tap to drink is pretty gross.



..."But what about E.coli and other harmful bacteria? Won't fertilizing my plants with rotted material and poop transfer that to my plants, and into me when I eat the vegetables?"
Properly composted, manure of any type should not have any of the harmful bacteria that make us so sick. You are applying the manure, compost, and teas to the soil, and not the foliage or vegetables, typically. A light washing will remove any debris that might be on your veggies. The e.coli and salmonella scares we have seen in grocery stores were caused by improper care. Untreated sewage water was used to water crops. Bacteria spread within processing plants from unsanitary conditions. As long as you are not re-routing your toilet to water your crops, or handling your food after scratching your butthole, you should be fine.