Start a Compost Pile to Help Your Garden Grow

Relatively trouble-free compost piles can be tailored to suit your needs and kept in a wide variety of environments.

Compost Pile

If a traditional backyard compost pile isn't practical where you live, try a worm bin, which is odorless and easy to keep indoors and can work on a small scale.

Photo by Fotolia/coulanges

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Green Wizardry (New Society Publishers, 2013), by John Michael Greer, proposes a modern mage for uncertain times, one who possesses a vast array of practical skills gleaned from the appropriate tech and organic gardening movements forged in the energy crisis of the 1970s. From the basic concepts of ecology to a plethora of practical techniques such as composting, green manure, low-tech food preservation and storage and more, Greer provides a comprehensive manual for today’s wizard-in-training. The following excerpt from Lesson 9, “Composting and Mulching,” emphasizes the importance a compost pile has on your organic garden.

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Ask a hundred people who don’t practice organic gardening what the heart and soul of a successful organic garden is, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Ask a hundred people who do practice organic gardening the same question, and my guess is that a large majority of them will give you one answer: the compost bin. What some of them will go on to tell you, and most of the others know intuitively, is that the humble and lovable compost bin is the template on which the entire structure of any future sustainable society will have to be modeled.

Step out through my back door with me for a moment, and you’ll see how this works. My current compost bin is a roughly cubic shape four feet on a side, made of recycled lumber and chicken wire, snugged up to the fence that surrounds my backyard garden. Every day, kitchen scraps and garden waste go into it; every spring, a couple of wheelbarrow loads of rich brown dirt come out of it and get worked into the garden beds. There’s lesson number one for a sustainable society: the word “garbage” simply means a resource we aren’t clever enough to use yet.

Take a shovel and turn the compost, and I’ll introduce you to a few million of my closest friends: the living things that make compost happen. What organisms you get in a compost bin will be determined by how hot and fast you like to do your compost, and this depends on the ingredients you use and how you tend the pile.

“Hot” is not a metaphor; a compost bin with the right mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon materials and just enough moisture can produce so much heat that you’ll need to hose it down daily in the summer to keep it from catching on fire. In that kind of heat, very little thrives except the thermophilic bacteria that drive the decay process, but they do thrive. A friend of mine still glows with pride when he recalls the compost pile he built in his 4-H days. It hit a peak temperature of 190 degrees Fahrenheit and finished turning its carefully arranged layers of garden and kitchen waste into ripe compost in only fourteen days.

If you prefer a slower and lazier process, as I do, you can expect to get most of the major animal phyla in your compost bin, along with a bumper crop of fungus and an even larger population of microbes. Most of the critters you can see without magnification will be annelids and arthropods — that is, worms and bugs — and you’ll see a lot of them. A good magnifying glass will show you an even more diverse ecosystem. If you have a microscope handy, put a little of the compost in some distilled water, shake thoroughly, pipette a bit of the water into a well slide, and make the acquaintance of a giddy assortment of single-celled organisms.

You also have the option of having a more limited fauna in your compost. People who live in apartments, condominiums, or houses subject to idiotic regulation by homeowner’s associations usually find it more functional to use a specialized form of composter called a worm bin. This is exactly what it sounds like, a bin full of dirt that’s also full of worms. You feed your vegetable scraps to the worms; they devour the scraps and then excrete some of the best fertilizer you’ll find anywhere. Unlike compost bins, worm bins are nearly odorless, easy to run indoors, and can work well on a very small scale. I’ve known single people living alone who kept worm bins and used the very modest output to keep their potted plants green and growing.

One way or another, the livestock in your compost bin is essential to the composting process because without them, what you get isn’t compost, but stinking goo. What happens in a compost bin is exactly what happens in ordinary soil to the vegetable matter that falls onto it in the normal course of nature: decomposers — living things that feed on dead matter — eat it, cycle its nutrients through their own life processes, and then excrete those nutrients in forms that plants can use. What makes a compost bin different is that you, the green wizard, tinker with the conditions so that this natural process can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible so that you can put the results in your garden, which is where you want it. This is where lesson number two for a sustainable society comes in: instead of wasting your time trying to fight nature, figure out what she wants to do and arrange things so that her actions work to your advantage.

Lesson number three requires a little more attention to the details of composting. To keep your livestock happy and healthy, the compost needs to be damp but not soggy, and it needs to get plenty of oxygen. You need to be careful not to overdo the nitrogen — too much freshly cut grass from your lawn, for example, will turn your bin into a soggy mess that smells of ammonia, because grass that’s still moist and green has too much nitrogen in it. (Leave it lying for a couple of days before raking it up, so that it wilts and starts to turn brown. Then you can add it to your compost bin with good results.) Different styles of composting, fast or slow, have their own detailed requirements, and worm bins have slightly different requirements of their own.

All these requirements have some wiggle room built into them, but not all that much, and if you stray too far beyond the wiggle room, things won’t work right until you fix the problem. Nothing else will do the job. You can’t bully or wheedle a compost bin. If you give it what it needs, it will give you what you want, and if you don’t, it won’t. It really is as simple as that. This can be generalized into lesson number three for a sustainable society: nature doesn’t negotiate. If you want her to work with you, you have to give her whatever she wants in return. Oh, and by the way, she won’t tell you. You have to figure that part out for yourself, or learn from someone who’s already figured it out.

Getting Over the Squick Factor

At this point, those of my readers who don’t already have compost bins full of a couple of million good friends will have divided into two groups. The first group consists of those people who are eager to get to work making compost. The second consists of those people who are backing nervously away from this book, hoping that annelids, arthropods, and thermophilic bacteria don’t crawl through its pages and follow them home. If you’re a member of the latter group, you’ve probably already come up with a hundred plausible explanations why you can’t possibly compost your kitchen scraps, or even tuck a worm bin in the utility closet where it will be odorless, harmless, and comfortably out of the way. Still, you know as well as I do that the hundred plausible explanations aren’t the real reason you don’t want to take up composting. The real reason you don’t want to take up composting is the Squick Factor.

The Squick Factor is the ingrained and unreasoning terror of biological existence that’s hardwired into the psyches of so many people nowadays. Composting, remember, is about decay. Things put into a compost pile rot, and they get eaten by worms and bugs. Even when you’ve got your compost in a nice, expensive bin made of textured, recycled black plastic that nobody but a homeowner’s association could find objectionable, and even if the only scent that comes off it reminds you of summer meadows from childhood, and even if it can’t be smelled at all more than six inches away from the bin, composting triggers the Squick Factor in many people.

There’s another name for the Squick Factor: biophobia. Compost is life — damp, oozing, crawling, slithering, breeding, dying and being reborn — and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days. It’s an old, old phobia, but ours is the first civilization in history that has had, however temporarily, enough energy and resources to let its more privileged classes pursue the fantasy of an existence free from biological realities.

The squicky feeling many people get when they contemplate a compost bin is one reflection of our culture’s traditional biophobia. If you’re going to become a green wizard, though, that attitude is one you’re going to have to learn to do without, sooner rather than later, because most of what we’ll be doing involves getting elbow deep in life. If the thought of having a compost bin or a worm bin sets off your Squick Factor, it’s important to recognize that fact and accept it, but it’s also important to go ahead anyway, take the plunge, and discover that the worms in your worm bin are the cleanest, quietest, and least demanding pets you’ve ever owned.

Drawing More into Your Garden

Composting has another side that isn’t always recognized. Even if you’ve got a thriving organic garden in your backyard, you’re probably getting at least some of your food from other sources, and if you’re in the very first stages of setting up that soon-to-bethriving organic garden, you’re getting all your food from other sources. The scraps and trimmings that go into your compost bin are inputs to your garden. If you’re raking up leaves or mowing your lawn and putting the results into your compost, that’s another input. This is a secret function of your compost bin: it’s a tool for concentrating nutrients from a wider area into the piece of ground you garden.

More broadly, that’s one of the secrets of successful organic gardening: you close up your nutrient cycles as tightly as possible, and you also tap into other nutrient streams that would otherwise become waste and draw them into the eager clutches of your garden. Traditional farmers around the world turned this sort of thing into a fine art, weaving farms and gardens into the wider ecology of the area in richly complex ways. All this needs to be done in ways that don’t impair the viability of the systems that provide inputs to your garden, but that can be done easily enough in most cases, given a bit of finesse and a sensitivity to ecological relationships.

Your options here are very broad, and will depend on local conditions. They also extend beyond the practice of composting itself. There are at least three such options that were thoroughly tested in the 1970s, and can be used to add additional organic matter to your soil, alongside what you can get via the compost bin.

The first method is mulching. In many parts of North America, this has become a staple technique of organic gardeners, and for good reason; in other places, for equally good reasons, nobody does it. Back in the day, there were huge debates over mulching; we didn’t yet have the internet in the 1970s, but something close to a modern flamewar raged in the letters columns of organic gardening magazine for a good part of the decade before people finally realized that it’s a very good technique in some places and a very poor one in others.

The technique is simple enough. You get large quantities of coarse and otherwise unwanted organic material — for example, spoiled hay, autumn leaves, straw, or crushed peanut hulls — and spread a layer several inches thick over your garden beds before planting. When you plant, you clear away the mulch around the seedling or the seed so it can get sunlight. The layer of mulch helps suppress weeds, keeps moisture in the soil, and gradually rots, adding nutrients to your soil.

Mulching can have drawbacks. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, nobody in their right mind mulched during the growing season because mulch in damp climates is a slug magnet, and slugs in the wet zone west of the Cascades can get up to eight inches long, with appetites to match. I’ve heard from gardeners who had similar troubles with rats. Of course, you also have to find a source of clean organic matter in bulk, and this can be a challenge in some situations.

The second method is green manure. This amounts to a living mulch for the winter season: something fast-growing that you can sow in your garden beds when the weather starts to cool off, and hoe under in the spring just before planting. The best green manures for small garden use in many cases are clovers, which are legumes and put nitrogen in your soil, and rye grass, which produces a lot of organic matter relatively quickly and breaks down easily in the soil to feed the organisms there. If you mulch, you won’t be able to use green manure, and vice versa. Both are good approaches, however, so it’s probably worth your while to try them both on different patches of ground to see what works best.

The third method is the tried and true trick of growing plenty of legumes in your garden. Done right, anywhere in the temperate zone, this is a three-step process: you plant peas as early in spring as you can work the soil; you plant beans as soon as the weather is warm enough, and then you plant a second round of peas for fall harvest about the time the summer peaks and begins to decline into autumn. Any kind of pea or bean will do, so choose whatever you like to eat, and plant as many as space permits. If you grow the kind that are eaten green, you can always blanch and freeze anything you can’t eat in season, and if you grow the kind that are dried and shelled, an extra pound or two of dried beans or peas in the root cellar is always a good thing to have. Meanwhile, like all legumes, your plants are pumping nitrogen out of the atmosphere and into your soil, where other plants can get at it.

There are many other ways to work the same transfer of nutrients. It’s important not to become too dependent on any source of outside nutrients that could be shut off unexpectedly — say, by problems with the economy — and it’s as important to make sure that the inputs that you use are the sort of thing that will support the ecology of your garden rather than damaging it, as chemical fertilizers will. Within those limits, there are plenty of options. See what you can come up with.

Read More from Green Wizardry:

Bring Beneficial Organisms into Your Garden
Be Better Prepared with a Fireless Cooker

Exercise for Lesson 9

Your exercise for this lesson is to pay attention to how much organic matter your household produces over the course of an ordinary week. If you already have a composter or a worm bin, your kitchen scraps are already going into a separate container to feed to the critters; if you don’t, just for the course of one week, put all the waste vegetable matter from your kitchen and garden into a separate plastic bag. Animal products and oils shouldn’t go into the composting process, so leave them out, but any non-oil vegetable product — coffee grounds, tea bags, stale bread, wilted lettuce, you name it — can go in. Get a cheap bathroom scale or some other way of weighing your take, and find out how much you produce. If you don’t yet have a composter or a worm bin, all of that could be turning into the best possible soil supplement; if you do, all of that presumably is on its way to your soil as soon as the compost critters get through with it.

Reprinted with permission from Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and Other Hands-on Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer and published by New Society Publishers, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Green Wizardry.