Composting Myths, Composting Facts

Contrary to modern myths, composting isn't complicated. Learn the composting facts and keep it simple.

| December 1998/January 1999

  • 171-composting-myths-composting-facts-Kokhanchikov-Fotolia.jpg
    Composting myth: you need to buy earthworms and add them to your pile. Composting fact: build it and they will come.

  • 171-composting-myths-composting-facts-Kokhanchikov-Fotolia.jpg

It is a tribute to composting that humans have taken such a simple, natural process and elevated it through myth and misunderstanding into a form of New Age alchemy. The spread of these myths has been facilitated by word of mouth, misguided publications from solid-waste managers, and worst of all, hardcore marketing. In order to keep composting simple and inexpensive, let's dispel the composting myths with composting facts.

1) Compost Bins

There are scores of weird and wonderful commercial designs available, from black plastic cubes with deluxe sliding doors to rotating drums to freewheeling spheres. The prices range from tens to hundreds of dollars. These appliances are not essential, of course, but they can accelerate the compost process significantly and can save some labor. Heaps or piles work just fine, however. If you want to keep your pile tidy, consider using wire mesh, or reusing scrap lumber, shipping pallets, cinder blocks, or snow fencing. Dry-climate composters might consider using a covered bin to reduce evaporation and moisture loss, while urban composters may decide to contain their compost in sturdy bins with lids, bases, and small apertures to keep out pests. (A perforated metal trash can is an excellent choice for city dwellers.) If you want a prefabricated bin, consider volume before you buy: more money often buys less capacity; the highest capacity models generally sell for less than $40.

2) Bioactivators

These bacteria-laden powders and liquids are the snake oil of composting. While they do contain "cultured" strains of bacteria and other additives, the fact is that special inoculants are unnecessary. Recent studies suggest that there are approximately 10 trillion bacteria in a spoonful of garden soil. Every fallen leaf and blade of grass you add to your pile is already covered with hundreds of thousands of bacteria — more than enough to do the job.

3) Yeast, Elixirs, and Worms

There are a number of recommended additives for boosting compost performance, most of which are unsubstantiated or silly. Some practitioners suggest pouring Coca-Cola into the pile to increase biological activity; it will increase, but mostly in the form of yellow jackets and ants. Adding yeast is also a common practice, but expensive and useless. Adding worms or worm cocoons has grown in popularity due to some confusion with vermicomposting. Worms do a tremendous amount of good, but need not be purchased or transplanted by the average backyard composter. Just build a pile and they will come.

4) Fertilizer

Adding fertilizer to increase the nitrogen content of a pile is wasteful and expensive. More importantly, synthetically derived fertilizers contain high salt levels and other compounds (perhaps even pesticides, which are harmful to worms and microorganisms; they may impair the nitrogen-fixing ability of the bacteria and short-circuit the nitrogen cycle. If you feel that you must add nitrogen, perhaps to a pile made up of only carbon-rich leaves, always try to use organic sources first: spent grounds from a coffee shop, a neighbor's grass clippings, agricultural manures, or dried blood.

5) Lime

Many gardeners with a high proportion of acid-rich materials to compost mistakenly add lime to their pile to produce compost with a balanced pH. Unfortunately, adding ground limestone will turn your compost ecosystem into an ammonia factory, with nitrogen rapidly lost as a noxious gas. Finished compost is almost always nearly neutral.

11/14/2008 10:44:16 AM

This is great advice - the info alone on the needlessness of bioactivators makes this worthwhile.


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