If you read anything at all when you get into organic gardening, it doesn’t take long to hear about compost, composting, and how to make a compost pile.
Probably every long-time organic gardener has, at one time or the other, had one. I know I did. And as much as it is promoted — probably all new organic gardeners will have a compost pile in their future at one time or the other.
Compost Pile – Alternate the Greens with the Browns
The idea is to alternate materials like grass clippings or manures that are high in nitrogen (the greens) with material high in carbon like fallen leaves, straw, and corn stalks (the browns). The suggested ratio is 1/3 greens to 2/3s browns.
Then with the right amount of air (that’s why you turn the pile every couple of weeks) and the right moisture (like a wrung out sponge) you’ll get a nice hot pile that doesn’t smell, heats to temperatures that kill pathogens, and turns to the black gold that feeds your plants.
What if it Doesn’t Heat?
If your pile doesn’t heat up it will still decay and make that black gold over time. Just takes longer. It’s then called a Cold Pile.
Finished Product = Finished Compost (Sometimes called humus.)
Whether your pile is cold or hot, the finished compost is wonderfully moist crumbly organic matter. It releases nutrients to plants slowly as they need it. It improves all soils. Helps plants grow strong and healthy.
A Few Important Precautions
If you plan a compost pile make sure the materials you add are biodegradable, chemical free and contaminant and toxin free.
Never use dog, cat, pig or reptile manures since they can contain dangerous pathogens and parasites and your pile may not be hot enough to kill them.
I read recently in an organic gardening newsletter a caution against using cow manure since it may contain a very dangerous E. coli pathogen. They recommended not adding it to home compost ever because of the health risk, especially since a home pile may not be hot enough to kill the deadly bacteria.
If you do it anyway – they said to wait at least 4 months after adding it to your soil before harvesting to be sure the pathogens are no longer active.
Why I No Longer Have a Compost Pile
My Hot Pile
I always seemed to have trouble having the right ratio of green/brown materials on hand in order to get the pile to heat. And of course, there was just the right amount of water and aerating the pile.
I didn’t want to “mess up” the pile once it started heating so I had to have another place to put new materials. That meant two piles; possibly three.
My Cold Pile
After a few years of all this bother about the right ratio, air, water and space, my hot piles turned into one cold pile. If it took a year to decay — that was ok with me. I just kept adding to the top of the pile and taking compost from the bottom of the pile. The wonderful result was still the same.
Usually somewhere in the yard I’ll have a small pile that I use for various pulled weeds, small hedge prunings and the like. Technically it could be termed a cold compost pile.
What I Do with the Rest
If you’re a regular here at TMG, you already know that all my straw goes on top of my garden beds, borders and paths. If I can get pine needles they’re destined for the same.
All my vegetative kitchen scraps (carrot peelings, cabbage cores, onion skins, egg shells are ok, tomato, apple & potato peelings, pea shells, etc. ) go into beds that are not being used or under straw in garden paths if all the garden beds are full. In winter, these scraps amount to about a quart a day and much more in the growing season.
(Just in case you’re wondering about those paths, they’ll be dug out again every other year and all that nice organic matter will be thrown onto the beds. I’ll fill the paths with straw again and the process will start again.)
Same Results but Less Work
I find it a lot less work to empty my daily kitchen scraps directly into garden beds. It decomposes right in the soil and with the same results as compost. After decomposing it releases nutrients slowly to plants. It continues to improve my soil. It make my plants grow strong and healthy.
My straw (or pine) is so much easier to handle just one time. I apply it as a mulch and it protects my soil, breaks down, and then performs the same duties of compost by adding that nice organic matter to the soil.
So – Should You Have a Compost Pile?
If a compost pile works in easily to your garden regime — but all means go for it! If it doesn’t — don’t worry about it. Nature is user friendly. Stuff decays and the end result is the same whether it’s in a “pile” or not.
I’ve enjoyed the past 23 years without having to bother with one.
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