Creating Compost: Returning Life to The Soil
By Anthea Hudson
TRENCH AND PATH COMPOSTING
GREEN MANURE CROPS
WORMS, GLORIOUS WORMS
Good, healthy, living soil... one of the most important aspects of creating a thriving, resilient garden. And one of the best ways to get this happening is with the use of compost. It's wonderful stuff, basically free (once you are set up) and helps create a cycle of no waste, while giving your soil what it needs for all the aspects of healthy soil to work in concert.
If we observe a forest floor or other largely unspoiled natural area, what do we see happening? We see the natural cycle of growth, death, and breaking down... ready to bring forth life again. Plants grow, in symbiotic relationships with each other, helping provide what another plant needs. Leaves and branches fall, some plants die. Fungi, insects, worms and micro-organisms all help break down this organic matter. Birds and animals eat plants, fruits, seeds, other animals etc and then deposit nutrient rich manure. All of these processes working in harmony to use what is there to enrich all life of the area. There is no waste in nature.
So, how can we use the wonderful wisdom of nature in our own gardens to bring about great results?
WHAT CAN I COMPOST?
What Can I Compost-50 Composting Ingredients
- Fruit and veggie scraps such as peelings, cores, soft or mouldy produce.
- Egg shells- better if crushed, otherwise they take a very long time to decompose.
- Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags.
- Grains, breads, out-of-date packets of food.
- Bokashi bin contents.
- Garden prunings- bigger pieces put through a shredder, or cut up fine.
- Weeds- be cautious of any weeds with seed-heads, especially in cool/passive composting.
- Raked up dry leaves.
- Untreated sawdust or shavings. Never use treated wood, as it often contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic!
- Lawn clippings- don't overuse, and preferably let dry for a couple of days before adding to compost.
* See Grasscycling section for more about lawns.
- Manure from vegetation eating animals such as rabbits, chickens, llamas, alpacas, cows.
Be cautious of horse manure as often grass seeds survive their digestive process.
- Cardboard- don't use heavily printed cardboard as the inks may contain unpleasant chemicals.
- Shredded paper.
- Egg cartons.
WHAT SHOULDN'T I COMPOST?
- Meat, fish, bones etc. * See Bokashi Bins section.
- Dairy products.
- Fats, oils, grease.
- Dog or cat faeces, as these can carry pathogens.
- Manure from any animal that has recently been wormed, as the medication can kill earthworms, which is the last thing you want! Probably best to avoid manure from any animal that has recently taken any medication, to be on the safe side.
- Treated wood, sawdust or shavings.
- Diseased or fungal infected material.
- Great caution with adding many (if any) poisonous leaves such as oleander, or leaves which can be toxic to other plants such as eucalyptus.
Things not to compost
It is important to get a good mix of both "green" and "brown" material in your compost mix, for the process to work properly. Too much green, which contains lots of moisture, and your compost will be wet, slimy and smelly... too much brown and the moisture content will low and there won't be enough nitrogen to get things heating up. Greens are high in nitrogen, while browns are high in carbon.
You will need at least half brown (maybe more) and half green. A little practise and experimentation will help you get used to what will work right for you. Variations in the type of materials used, wetness that gets into the compost, weather, type of compost heap/bin all play a part.
The quickest way to compost, and probably best in the long run, is in what is called a batch pile. The resulting compost is usually of higher quality and nutrient rich, and usually causes few problems. Batch pile compost can often get quite hot, as it is less disturbed by new stuff being added, and therefore gets to work faster. You get lovely crumbly compost in a couple of months or so. This method requires having all of your materials, both green and brown, stockpiled ready, then building your compost heap.
Often, however, people prefer to just add to their compost as they produce the "waste" materials, and this is fine too. It will take a little longer though and because what you put in it isn't "planned" and layered specifically, it can run into more problems than the batch pile. It tends to have a lower temperature also, so is slower. It may be more in need of activation. * See Compost Activation section.
It is a good idea to use a layer of sticks or some other form of keeping it raised off the ground a little, to allow aeration.
The Perfect Compost Recipe - How to Get Your Compost Heap Cooking!
COOL / PASSIVE COMPOSTING
Most compost is made this way, because most people prefer the convenience of a compost system where they can add to it as they go. These types rarely reach the temperatures of hot compost. They do take longer to create a finished compost, but they also do attract worms and other micro-organisms that would find it too hot in a hot compost system.
Don't add anything with seed heads to cool compost, as there isn't enough heat to render them inert, and therefore they may then grow in your garden when the compost is added. Turning every couple of months is advised.
The batch pile system is more likely to reach higher temperatures and therefore create a hot compost. You can also help this process by insulating with heavy black plastic, old carpets or other thick materials, or by creating compost areas out of insulating and heat retaining materials. Regular turning is important to aerate and mix, to keep the process going.
TRENCH AND PATH COMPOSTING
This is a different approach to composting, whereby a narrow trench is dug (approx 1 spade depth, and one spade width across) and then filled gradually with kitchen scraps etc. As you deposit scraps, you then cover over the top with the soil you removed, until eventually the whole trench is done. Leave scraps to break down for a couple of months before planting. The composted material supplies the young plants with rich nutrients.
We found pumpkins and legumes did particularly well growing on a compost trench.
Another way to use this type of approach is path composting. This makes use of the paths between your growing beds. You don't even necessarily have to dig a trench. Just lay your compost-able material on the ground and cover with a thick layer of hay or straw. Continue this all along the path as more material becomes available. You can walk on the path as usual, as the thick straw layer protects both your feet, and any worms that make their way into the composting material... and they will! The growing plants will begin to utilise the nutrients as their roots extend. Next season, change the location of your paths, and use the old composted paths as rich new growing beds. No need to lug compost from one place to another... it all happens right there in the garden!
Trench Composting: Foolproof Compost Without A Bin
Compost will proceed without help, but if you want to speed things up, or if they have become a little sluggish, you can activate the process by adding things.
- Compost from an older batch will help, as it has a good supply of micro-organisms.
- Urine- male urine works best... plus it's much easier for a man! Don't be squeamish about this- it all breaks down and won't be harmful.
- Manure- if you have rabbits or chickens, add some of their manure when you clean out their enclosures. It is best to used dry, aged chicken manure rather than fresh, as it can burn tender plant roots. Fresh rabbit manure however is fine in most situations, and has a lot more nitrogen than dry. Any hay that is mixed with the manure is an added bonus!
- Add some nitrogen rich plants such as lawn clippings, young weeds, nettles or comfrey, but be cautious of adding too much, or you will end up with a smelly, slimy mess.
- Seaweed- but make sure you only collect it where it is permitted.
- Coffee grounds make a great activator.
- You can also buy commercial activators, but make sure you check what they are made from... you don't want to be putting potentially toxic chemicals into your compost! And using one of the above is much cheaper, and you are making use of things that otherwise would have gone to waste.
- If compost is smelly and slimy add more brown material and turn compost well.
- If it's too dry, spray it with water, or add some more green material.
- If compost is sluggish because it isn't creating much heat, try adding an activator.
- Acidity slows down the composting process. Lime can help if the compost is too acidic.
- If there is an ammonia smell, your compost may be too alkaline. Try adding untreated sawdust.
- If unwanted visitors are dropping by your compost, make sure you aren't adding things such as meat or fatty foods that are attracting them. Make sure food scraps are covered at least by a thick layer of brown material on the top, or even some kind of solid cover.
There are various types of commercial compost bins available, different sizes, designs, cost, pros and cons, to suit different needs. There are stationary bins, and tumble bins. Our article on Earthmaker compost bins introduces you to one system.
Some important considerations are:
- Is it big enough to generate sufficient heat to work properly, and for your composting needs?
- Will it hold heat well? A dark colour will help absorb the sun's heat too.
- Is it fairly easy to access the finished compost to remove some, or for turning?
- Does it have rodent proof features?
- Is it properly vented?
- Will you need more than one?
You can also make your own compost bins/areas. From a simple "heap", a wire cage, a converted rubbish bin, to more solid constructions from wooden slats, pallets, wooden lattice, bricks or besa blocks and full-on fancy compost suites!
How To Build a Compost Bin from Wooden Pallets
How to make your own home made compost tumbler step by step.
Bokashi bins are great for using in your kitchen (or can be put outside) for food scraps, as it makes it quicker and easier than having to go out to your compost heap. They are small bins/buckets in which you can put basically any kitchen food scraps, including things you can't put in an ordinary compost heap such as meat and dairy. It uses a special bran with micro-organisms, which ferment the waste. It uses an anaerobic process, so make sure the lid is kept on tight. Bokashi bins don't have an unpleasant odour.
Once the bucket is full, you can either empty it onto your normal compost heap, or dig it into your garden.
Here is an article on Bokashi, containing input from the lovely ladies at Jaki Bokashi, who have a real passion for their product!
Homemade bokashi bucket
GREEN MANURE CROPS
You can grow green manure crops which help put nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, ready for the proper planting. They also protect garden beds from erosion. After growing for a short time (depending on the specific plant) dig them back into the soil, when they are young and sappy, not tough and woody. Leave about a month, after digging in, before planting.
Some ideal green manure crops are pigeon peas, broad beans, lupins, clover, fenugreek, buckwheat, rye, mustard and vetch. Choice will partly depend on your region and when you want to grow your green manure.
Mulching is basically imitating nature by laying organic matter directly on the ground. Eventually this will decompose, with the help of worms and other creatures, and in the meantime provides moisture retention and weed discouragement properties. In a Food Forest system, plants are routinely pruned and allowed to drop to the ground. Some plants are specifically grown as mulching plants. Most weeds can also just be pulled up and allowed to lay where they fall. Straw, leaf mulch and finished compost can also be used to mulch.
Dare to go against the accepted norm if you have a lawn! Contrary to old belief, leaving lawn clippings on the lawn is actually good for it. They help "mulch" the lawn and lessen evaporation. Also, they create a more inviting environment for worms and important micro-organisms. And they break down and supply about 50% of the lawn's nitrogen requirements, giving you free fertiliser and saving costs!
So, leave your catcher off! Cut just the tops off the grass... don't cut your lawn down almost to the ground. Keep your mower blades sharp for less trauma to the grass. Grasscycling also saves time in the inevitable raking that usually needs to happen.
Just Mow & Go! Tips for Grasscycling
WORMS, GLORIOUS WORMS
Worms are one of the natural wonders of your garden, cleaning up organic matter, depositing wonderful fertiliser and aerating the soil. Without worms, and other living creatures in the soil, your garden would be much less productive, and in fact possibly reliant on chemical fertilisers as are big non-organic crops, where the use of chemicals has destroyed nearly all natural activity in the soil.
Worms are attracted to moist areas, rich with organic matter. They do their own composting work, reproducing prolifically and converting large amounts of organic material to wonderfully fertile compost, in the right conditions.
Worms will also enter your compost heap at certain points (when they aren't too hot) and help with that process too.
Vermicomposting is using worms in specific worm farms to create castings (worm poo) which are great compost, and worm tea, which is the liquid drained off from the worm farm, a very rich fertiliser high in nitrogen and phosphates.
You can buy various kinds of pre-manufactured worm farms, or make your own. See our article on Home Made Worm Farms.
Here's a very simple, cheap DIY worm farm:
How To Make A Worm Farm
Check out this article for more information on creating healthy, abundant living soils.
With ongoing stockpiling of useful organic materials, and a few compost bins/areas, you should be able to keep composting all year round. Once you have created some wonderful rich compost... spread it around your plants, or dig it into a new bed... and watch your plants love you for it!