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Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Homestead Composting


One of the wonderful aspects of permaculture is the mindset of integrating systems in ways that enhance each other. Over the last few years we’ve read books, watched videos, took courses, and done small-scale experiments to learn these processes. It wasn’t until we actually got onto our homestead (almost one year ago) and started implementing these principles that we truly began to learn and fully appreciate the beauty of integrated systems.

One of the concepts we are always trying to focus on is the permaculture phrase, “The problem is the solution.” We don’t think there’s any better “problem” to utilize this principle on than waste. When we think of old coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable peels and ends, plate scrapings, crusty bread, grass clippings, manure, and so on, we don’t always think of it as a resource. But what a resource they are!

Before we moved to our homestead, we were “suburbanites.” We did try our hand at compost on a very small scale, but when you have seven children that little compost receptacle fills up quickly, and you inevitably resort back to using the garbage disposal and trash cans, which we did.

Now that we’ve transplanted our family to the country we look at things from a different viewpoint. It’s pretty amusing to consider how much we’ve changed in this aspect. Case in point: Now, when friends and family visit, I almost cringe when I see them throw perfectly good “waste” away in the trash can (I secretly dig it back out). A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

But, I’m happy to say, we’ve done a complete 180, our waste is now a resource, and yours can be too! So let’s discuss some important aspects of composting.

First off, I have to confess, we do not compost perfectly, and we don’t pretend that is our objective. Our intention on our homestead is to minimize input while maximizing results. Could we get quicker results if we honed our compost method and spent more time tending to it? Sure, but we’re pretty happy with the results we are getting. We want to encourage everyone to start a compost whether it is with a large-scale multi-bin system or small-scale compost turner on an apartment deck. Sometimes keeping it less labor-intensive makes your system more “doable.”  It can be as simple or complex as you want — but as we always say, “just start."

Compost Ingredients

So, with that in mind, there are four basic ingredients to composting that you need to think about: carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen.

First, you need to add both carbon and nitrogen in a balanced ratio. If you can keep this ratio correct you will have a healthy and non-smelly compost pile. Carbon would be items like shredded newspaper, cardboard, leaves, wood ash, etc. Think of these as “brown.”

Nitrogen would be items such as grass clippings, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, and so on. Think of these as “green.” The ratio of carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) you are looking for is 25-30:1. There are many helpful lists online that would aid you in determining the levels of carbon and nitrogen of individual items if you want to do the math and work toward perfect balance. However, what we do is keep a bin of carbon rich material (brown) on hand, and each time we add “green” material to our active compost bin we also add this “brown” material.

This all could turn into a real science if you were looking for the perfect ratio, but how we’ve decided to compost is a little bit looser and less intensive. We keep an eye on the smell of our bin, if we have a smelly compost bin we realize the levels are off and we add a little more “brown” material. Pretty simple.

Oxygen and Moisture Content of Healthy Compost

Next you need some moisture. This is an important component as it will keep the helpful bacteria growing and happy. Make sure there isn’t too much moisture as this will cause too much compaction, decreasing the next necessary item: oxygen.

One of the ways to ensure proper watering is to keep a cover near. If it is raining, you will likely want to cover the pile to keep it from getting overly wet. If it is very dry outside, then you need to water your active pile once in a while, then cover it to help retain the moisture and decrease evaporation. As you can see, you will probably need a cover. Don’t get caught up in finding the perfect cover — even a plastic sheet held down with large rocks will suffice.

As mentioned above, the final element is oxygen. The addition of oxygen can be achieved through turning your compost pile to aerate it. Again, we do not do this; we have chickens that like to work our piles. I think that helps a lot, but the other thing we have in our compost pile is plenty of “brown” material in the form of manure-covered straw. This straw is layered throughout our pile to not only keep the balance of carbon and nitrogen in check but, because it is rather course material, it provides pockets for air to travel through.

Those are the basic ingredients for a compost pile. We’ve decided to keep ours very simple and non-demanding, but if you are really interested in shortening the break down process there are books, articles and videos out there that will show you how to use the elements to their fullest [Editor's note: Search the MOTHER EARTH NEWS archive by typing "Compost" in the search bar above].

No matter what, I highly recommend learning more about composting so you can thoroughly employ your “waste” for improved soil fertility and abundance.

Remember, the four basic ingredients are:

• Carbon: “brown” material
• Nitrogen: “green” material
• Water
• Oxygen

Start a compost pile, don’t worry about perfection, read, learn, and experiment.

If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact Sean and Monica at Sovereign Sonrise Permafarm and form more information n composting, please listen to podcast Number 86 on iTunes and Stitcher radio, or go to The Courageous Life Podcast.

Blessings from Sovereign Sonrise Permafarm - Monica Mitzel

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