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Composting – The Whys and Why Nots

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– they said to wait at least 4 months after adding it to your soil before harvesting to be sure the pathogens are no longer active.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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8 comments to Composting – The Whys and Why Nots

  • Alicia

    What a great article, Im a 3rd year gardener, but have been around it all my life. I am using my very first garden spot (probably an 8×8 fenced section) as a “compost pile” – I have been tossing my leaves, grass clippings & veggie scraps there for 2 years and have some good stuff. Going to use it this year in my new tractor tire raised beds. I like your ideas of how to just add it to the beds or etc as you go, I passed that on to my Mom. I look forward to checking out your other articles, very inspiring! 🙂

  • Theresa

    Nice to have you as a reader Alicia. Welcome!

    Sounds like you’ve got some great stuff on that 8×8 section.

    Glad you found some ideas of interest and something to pass along to your Mom.

    Thanks for taking time to comment.

    Best,
    Theresa

  • Heather

    Hi Theresa. When you use egg shells do you rinse them out first? Just wondering if that is truly needed. Not sure if the little bit of whites left in the shells might attract undesirable wildlife to my compost. Thank you!

    Heather

  • Theresa

    Heather, sometimes if the eggshells are unwashed they attract critters. If we weren’t concerned about that — there would be no need to wash them.
    Theresa

  • Bonnie Plesco

    I love having a compost pile. I can’t believe that I can make dirt full of nutrients with kitchen scraps, clean grass clippings and leaves. In Florida our fall is just getting ready to start. I see a few leaves on the ground but just wait, it is coming. I collect all my leaves and the leaves in the driveways of my neighbors. They don’t seem to mind that I blow all of them into my yard. I have a nice square spot right next to my compost bin where the leaves stay until I need them. I keep them covered from the rain as I do with my compost. If my pile is cooking I just add fresh grass clippings to the top of the heap, cover with dry crushed leaves and water the top layers and let it go.

    Today I worked with the compost, I have to clear the bed for new leaves that I expect in a couple weeks or so. I don’t like to have pieces of leaves that have not decomposed so I found this handy kitty litter box at the store that has a sift top on it. So I sifted compost into a new trash can that has wheels and filled it to the top today. A few weeks ago I sifted enough to fill a large garden cart. Now I will have to pull out a tub and try to finish it off this weekend. I am digging a new bed this year so all that compost will come in handy.

    Bonnie

  • Theresa

    I enjoyed your posting Bonnie. I especially liked how you found a kitty litter box with a sift top!

    Thanks for taking time to tell what works for you.
    Theresa

  • Sandy

    Just browsing on pinterest and found you. I am intrigued by your composting methods but not quite clear on how you do it. I have raised beds. If I devote one bed to composting, do I dig a hole each time I throw kitchen waste in and then cover it with dirt? Or maybe straw?? And then you don’t turn the contents of the bed at all? Just keep adding material until next year when you want to use that bed?
    So glad I found your site! Our philosophies are of a single mind.
    Sandy

  • Theresa

    Hi Sandy,
    Welcome to TMG! Nice to have you reading.

    If you’re going to devote one bed to composting you can do it all kinds of ways. The easiest way for me would be to pull back the straw, dump the kitchen waste, and cover again with straw. Or you could just dump the kitchen waste and add more straw on top each time.

    You could also make a larger hole and empty the kitchen waste there each time (until the hole is full) and cover with straw each time. Or you could dig a small hole for every time and dump it and cover with dirt and then straw.

    The main thing is to get it covered. The soil organisms will eventually pull it down into the soil.

    And no, I don’t turn my beds at all. I just keep adding organic materials.

    Also you might want to review the post again especial under these headings:
    My Cold Pile
    What I do with the rest
    Same Result but less work

    Theresa

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