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Working with Nature to Build Organic Soil, Part 3: Compost

Read previous parts in this series here.

For the suburbanite who has paid for a load of compost but instead received a pile of manure, let’s begin by defining compost: Compost is a mixture of decayed organic materials. It is what continually happens in nature as plants and animals die and are turned into soil by a multitude of microbes.

To have superb soil, we want to learn how to compost wastes from the kitchen, lawn, garden, farm animals and animal bedding. We want compost to smell “earthy,” look black and crumbly and have the consistency of a damp, not wet, sponge.

compost from animal bedding

Making compost is a bit like cooking: in the kitchen, some of us prefer to follow a recipe and others (me!) like to take basic ingredients and then follow their intuition. This article gives you the option of either path for making great compost.

Basic Compost Ingredients

1. Organic material, although strictly defined means “made of carbon,” it includes everything from kitchen scraps to manure to lawn clippings to old plants from the garden. The key to good compost is to have a lot more of the “brown” materials (straw, autumn leaves, wood chips) than “green” (grass clippings, kitchen scraps). The ratio of brown to green is actually 25 or 30:1.

backyard compost tumbler

2. Air is necessary for composting to be an aerobic process. Lack of air can lead to the proliferation of harmful bacteria. Our backyard compost tumbler has screened openings for air and its instructions admonish us to give it three full turns daily. The compost piles in the meadow get turned with the tractor when they stop steaming, and one recipe says it should be turned when the temperature gets to 160 degrees (Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis).

3. Water allows the necessary chemical reactions to take place in compost and keeps microbes alive. Some people build their compost pile around a perforated drainage tile so they can water the pile through the tile during dry times. Others water their pile when they turn it. Your composting material might need water if it appears dry, no longer heats up and crumbles apart rather than having the consistency of a damp sponge. Compost that’s too wet can be diagnosed by a bad smell because air can’t permeate the compressed material. You will also be able to squeeze water out of composting material when it is too wet.

4. Heat comes mainly from the chemical reactions taking place within the compost as it decomposes. Warmer ambient temperatures do make a difference though, and that’s why compost tumblers are painted dark colors and composting occurs faster in summer.

5. Microbes that assist with composting include everything from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and protozoa. Some are available in manure, and most are available in the leaves, grass old garden plants and garden produce. Microbes multiply quickly in a healthy compost pile.

Composting Caveats

1. Make sure manure doesn’t come from animals that have been treated with antibiotics. You don’t want the precious soil bacteria killed.

2. Know the source of any grass or straw to avoid insecticides, fungicides or glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup) which will kill soil microbes.

3. Shred materials to speed up the composting action. Just as the soil microbes shred organic material to make it break-down more quickly, you can shred leaves with a lawn mower before placing them in a pile. Since we’ve run our cows’ straw bedding through a manure spreader as it goes into the compost pile, the entire composting process takes closer to two years than three years, as it did before.

4. Kitchen scraps alone won’t make good compost—they are inevitably too wet. Add straw, wood chips or dried leaves until you get the consistency you want.

5. According to J.I. Rodale (see below), manure by itself does not make good compost for the following reasons: It’s slow to decompose, has unbalanced nutrition, the nitrogen is lost during the compost process, it takes too much energy from the soil to break down and it is acidic.

6. Using just compost to build good soil still releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere as it breaks down. Consider coupling compost with cover crops.

Rodale’s Compost Recipe

For those of those who want to begin composting with a precise recipe, I want to share that given by J.I. Rodale in his difficult to find, 1945 book, Pay Dirt, Farming and Gardening with Compost:

Compost pile can be any length, but make the width 5 feet to 12 feet. To build the pile, keep repeating these layers: 6-inch-high green material, 2 inches to 3 inches manure, 1/8th inch good soil plus limestone or wood ashes.

Build to a 5-foot-tall taper and water to “wet sponge” consistency. Monitor temperature, and don’t allow it to get hotter than 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn pile to reduce temperature to 90 degrees.

You’ll probably not get a blue ribbon for creating this great compost, but you will be rewarded with healthy, thriving plants and flavor food that is packed with nutrition. Compost tea provides one more way of working with nature to give healthy produce. I’ll discuss that in the next article.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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