A Compost Happening

Reader Contribution by Lee Reich
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Compost happens. And it happens a lot around here. You can have your compost tea, your biochar, your mineral supplements, and any other potions; I’ll have compost, plain and simple compost.

So here’s my basic schedule for making compost: Throughout summer I build compost piles; the piles sit through winter; I turn them in spring; I spread the compost in autumn. Compost ingredients don’t have to sit that long before they’re “cooked.” I used to build piles, turn them a month later, and then spread the compost a month after that. Years ago, the University of California did a study to see how fast compost could be made. Getting everything just right — moisture, ingredients, and air — compost was ready in a mere 2 weeks!

But what’s the rush? I have almost a dozen compost piles in various degrees of decomposition. With beds dense with vegetables, right now I have nowhere to spread the compost. Most of the compost does, in fact, get slathered on vegetable beds, one inch deep, which supplies all the nutrients the plants need for a whole season, as well as feeding beneficial organisms, aerating the soil, increasing moisture holding, and releasing and making more available nutrients already in the soil. And that’s just some of the known benefits.

I build my compost pile with care, treating the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms within as my compost pet. As with my dogs and cat, my compost pet needs food, water, and air. As with my dogs and cat (and me), the major foodstuffs my compost pet needs are those high in carbon (carbohydrates for us humans) and those high in nitrogen (protein for us humans). My compost pets high carbon foods are old, dry, brown plant material such as wood shavings, autumn leaves, hay, and straw. Their nitrogen foods include young, succulent, green plant material such as old lettuce leaves and broccoli trimmings from the kitchen, young weeds, soybean and other seed meals, and manure.

All this stuff goes into a compost bin, which is very important for keeping a compost pile from looking like a garbage pile, as well as keeping out scavengers and holding in moisture and heat. (My dogs and chickens follow me out to the compost pile when they see me with the bucket of kitchen trimmings. They immediately go to work on the trimmings which, if just left there, would be most attractive to rodents and other scavengers.) I alternate layers of high carbon materials with layers of high nitrogen material, the thickness of the layers determined by how high the materials are in either carbon or nitrogen, and materials’ density. I don’t want too much of anything too dense or else my pet won’t be able to breathe. The manure I get is horse manure with plenty of wood shavings, the latter valuable for keeping things fluffy with air.

I wet each layer as I lay it down. Every few layers I sprinkle on some soil and some ground, dolomitic limestone. The limestone improves the texture of the finished compost, adds calcium, and raises the pH. Soils around here have a naturally low pH and the only limestone my garden gets is via my compost.

I’ll occasionally add more exotic materials to the growing pile. Kelp, for instance. It’s not all that scientific, but I figure that our ancestors slithered out of the oceans eons ago, so the ocean must provide all the nutrients and micronutrients we need.

I hate to throw away, to be buried in a landfill, anything that could feed my pet and decompose. Hence, the pair of blue jeans that went into my compost. As testimonial to the toughness of Levis brand jeans, they required three compost cycles before they were reduced to something unrecognizable except for the signature brass button above the fly, and the brass rivets. (My daughter’s designer jeans evaporated after but one cycle.) Weeds and diseased plants also go into the pile; the combined effects of time and temperature eventually does them in.

Once a pile reaches about 5 feet in height, I cover it with a sheet of EPDM rubber roofing material to keep in moisture I’ve added and to keep out weed seeds and excess moisture form rainfall. A two-foot-long compost thermometer lets me see how things are “cooking.” Except for my winter pile, my compost piles typically reach 140-150°F. I number each pile to remind me of anything special that went into it and when it was built or turned.

After decades of making and using compost, I’m still amazed to pull back the cover and see that what once was a colorful jumble of plant material has been transformed to a dark brown, crumbly cake. Making compost is a mix of art and science seasoned with observation and experience. No matter what organic materials go into the bins, though, they will eventually decompose. Compost happens.

Lee Reich describes the weekly goings-on at his farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm) atwww.leereich.blogspot.com.