Composting for Serious Gardeners

This comprehensive guide to composting covers everything from bin construction to applying the finished product.

  • Truly sustainable fertility arises from the very land it nourishes. This compost was made from grass, leaves, crop residues, and kitchen garbage, all sourced from the farm itself.
    Photo by Will Bonsall
  • The scorched part of this post will endure a very long time, even when buried.
    Photo by Will Bonsall
  • These drawings show some of the construction details of my compost-bin system.
    Illustration by Will Bonsall
  • Shredding leaves before composting allows me to spread thicker layers without their wadding up.
    Photo by Will Bonsall
  • Apprentice Arica is mowing this ragweed for the compost pile! We're counting on the intense heat and bioactivity to destroy the ripening seed.
    Photo by Will Bonsall
  • Here the system is all filled up; we must wait three weeks before a bin will open up for starting a new pile.
    Photo by Will Bonsall
  • Three loads of compost per bed is ample even for the heavy feeders. That's about 900 pounds per 180 square feet.
    Photo courtesy Scott Perry
  • "Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening," offers innovative techniques for growing vegetables, grains, and perennial food crops by drawing upon the fertility of on-farm plant materials such as compost, green manures, perennial grasses, and forest products like leaves and ramial wood chips.
    Cover courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

With more than forty years of experience redefining gardening's boundaries, author Will Bonsall shows how readers can eliminate the use of off-farm inputs like fertilizers, minerals, and animal manures by practicing a purely veganic, or plant-based, agriculture-not for strictly moral or philosophical reasons, but because it is more ecologically efficient and makes good business sense.

In Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) he offers readers in-depth information on growing, harvesting, and processing an incredibly diverse variety of food crops. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Composting as if it Mattered.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS STORE: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening.

I make compost and lots of it, and not just because it’s something hippie homesteaders are expected to do, but because I get a kick out of doing it. No, really. In my lifetime (so far, that is) I’ve made easily 200 tons (181 tonnes) of compost. (Well, not easily; it was a bodacious amount of work.) I still think it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys to take a mess of useless stuff and turn it into a valuable product.

Compost is not my exclusive source of fertility; I also use green manures on some areas, and last year’s layer of decayed mulch is a significant source of nutrients; often it is enough by itself. However, the compost is a biggie, especially on certain heavy-feeding crops. It is crucial that I make enough compost and that the quality be good. And making good-quality compost requires more thought and effort than simply making a pile and letting compost happen.

I’ve known very few gardeners whose compost making furnishes most of their crops’ nutrient needs. (How far can grapefruit rinds and coffee grounds go toward building up the soil?) Typically, gardeners say that their compost is a source of humus, a source of trace minerals, or a bioactivator. They rely on hauled-in animal manure or purchased lime and other mined minerals to do the heavy lifting. This is where my garden-without-borders is different: My compost, in conjunction with green manure rotations and mulch, is intended to supply all the needs of my crops and the soil in which they live—the humus, the NPK, the good cooties, and so forth. And the ingredients in my compost all come from my immediate neighborhood. I do not bring in significant amounts of other stuff from afar. The main exception is leaves from the nearby town of Farmington, which I could as well collect from my own forest (and do), but theirs go to the landfill anyway, and I like to prevent that when I can.

2/2/2016 8:43:28 AM

Great advice. If you are a young, stout fellow. How about us older folks? We like to compost too, but don't have your stamina or strength.

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