11/14/2013 // By David Goodman
Most of us have read articles on “how to compost.” Some of us (like me… your friendly neighborhood mad scientist) have read many thousands of pages on the subject.
If you listen to the experts, the process sounds like a pain in the neck. No meat! No bread! No oils! No paper! Make a nice set of boxes! Put hardware cloth and motion detectors in to control rats! Get the C/N ratio right! Ensure a thermophilic reaction! Ask your neighbors first! Keep it moist but not wet! Check with local authorities! Turn it monthly – weekly – daily – hourly!
Yikes... no wonder we keep throwing banana peels in the trash.
It’s time to take a deep breath and re-think composting.
At a basic level, composting is simply a process of rot you can harness to feed your plants. To get started right now, you don’t need bins or a mix of “browns and greens.” Compost is like magic – you take “waste” and make it into a resource. Every bit of organic material that passes through your household can be returned to the soil. All you need is a shovel. Got a garden bed? Dig a trench and dump in food scraps, egg shells, bones, leftovers, even junk mail (not the glossy stuff or envelopes with plastic windows, obviously) and then bury it. Congratulations – you’ve just added nutrients back to the soil and there’s no smell, no infrastructure, and little trouble. If you’ve buried it deep enough, the critters aren’t a problem – and as long as you’re not burying piles of sawdust or tons of paper, “nitrogen robbing” won’t be a big deal.
You’ve probably heard how the Indians taught the Pilgrims to bury fish carcasses beneath corn plants. That’s composting. I followed their lead and buried organ meat, humanure (we had a great composting toilet system going at one point) and rotten leftovers in 2 - 3' deep holes and then covered them with a mound of dirt. A month or two later, I planted squash and sunflower seeds on the hills. I’ll tell you what – the plants didn’t need any additional fertilizing. We've done this multiple times and those areas remain fertile for years. (I call them "Melon Pits... you can read more about the process here and here).
The ground consumes anything dangerous and the plant roots then take what they want. Easy.
Of course, if you want compost for your garden, you do need to follow a few more rules – but they’re not tough. The reason extension agents don’t recommend adding certain ingredients to your pile is because they can attract vermin, create odors and fail to break down quickly or safely in a typical backyard pile. It’s not because they’re useless as soil amendments.
I confess: I’m not neurotic about creating “perfect” compost. I create a few large piles a year to feed my wife’s raised beds and my collection of fruit trees. I just mix a collection of green and brown things together and let nature take its course. If you’ve got some coffee grounds (some coffee shops give them away for free), grass clippings, garden thinnings, kitchen scraps and that sort of thing, mix them together in a pile and wet it as you go. It WILL rot, even if it isn’t as fast as you’d like. Turn it when you remember and it will break down faster. Get the mix of carbon and nitrogen correct and it will convert much faster – but even if you’re totally lazy, it will eventually become beautiful compost.
Every time I drive through town, I see piles of leaves, branches, grass clippings, tree trunks, pine needles and other rich organic matter lying by the road, waiting to be picked up by waste management. WHY? Because people don’t realize what they’re doing! By sending all that organic material off their property – they’re exporting their soil’s fertility… only to later purchase some back in plastic bags marked with numbers like “10-10-10.”
Think about it: a plant or a tree pulls up nutrients from deep in the soil and uses them, along with solar energy and water, to grow. All parts of that plant are useful! Don’t chuck it by the side of the road! You’re leaving your piece of earth less fertile than it was before.
Logs and sticks can be piled into corners to rot – or even buried as long-term moisture reservoirs for the soil (look up “hugelkultur” online – it’ll blow your mind). Leaves and grass clippings can be used as mulch or put in a compost pile. Pine needles are good mulch for acid-loving plants such as roses, azaleas and blueberries. Over time, all that plant material will break down and become part of the soil again, whether or not you make a nice, neat, highly managed system.
God designed things in nature to constantly cycle. Grab a piece of that cycle today and your plants will thank you tomorrow.
Now quick – go pull that banana peel out of the trash!
For daily gardening madness, visit David's blog at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com.