What Should I Do?

Phil Williams

Why Bother Composting?

The benefits of building great soil.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 7:01 PM

Composting can seem pretty complicated. Depending on who you talk to, or what you read, you will find tons of different advice on how to get just the right “brew”. You’ll hear about having the perfect ratio of greens and browns, and putting them together in thin shredded layers. Then you hear about occasionally turning the pile to let the right amount of oxygen in, but not too often, as you are losing nitrogen. Then you have to have the right cooking temperature. You have to have it hot, but not too hot. Hot enough to cook, but not so hot that you burn up your nutrients. Then you have leaching to worry about, and rodents and other animals if you don’t cover your edible scraps. You have to keep the right moisture levels. Seriously, how practical is all this??????

Sometimes I wonder why composting has to be so complicated. First of all, all organic material decomposes, and most of the materials that you are going to put into your compost pile will decompose in one year without any turning or any special attention. Sawdust, tree branches, and paper tend to take much longer. I would suggest making a separate pile for woody material. You can use the woody pile for firewood, or even a hugelkultur bed. If you burn your wood pile, you can use the wood ash in your garden beds, but be careful. Too much wood ash can raise the soil PH beyond what is good for most plants. Definitely, keep wood ash away from acid loving plants like blueberries. Wood ash can add some calcium, potassium, and a small amount of phosphorus.

So, if most things will decompose in one year, why do people go to all this trouble to get it just right? People do this to speed up the process, and to get just the right nutrient levels in their compost that is suitable for their plants.

What are the appropriate nutrient levels for compost?

This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on the existing soil, climate, and types of plants where the compost will be applied. Furthermore, there is much debate in this area as well. This is where we should know about the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Most people advocate around a 25-1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Below is a list of approximate carbon to nitrogen ratios of various materials.

6:1- These high nitrogen sources are high nitrogen manures such as rabbit, chicken, and pig, as well as bone meals.

12:1- Horse and cow manure, vegetable scraps, weeds, spring grass

25:1- Green hay, fruit, summer time grass

50:1- Dry corn stalks, tree leaves, poor hay

100:1- Tree bark, pine needles

 Source:  carbon-nitrogen ratios “Gardening when it Counts” Steve Solomon

How you get to that nice 25:1 ratio compost pile, really depends on what you are putting into it. If you have lots of leaves in your compost pile, you probably want to add rabbit or chicken manure to help bring down the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Also, you will want to mix the materials as they go in, which further complicates things. Unless you are really anal about the ratio, I would imagine most people never get it exactly right. My compost is a mix of chicken manure, grass clipping, and a small amount of leaves. All of my edibles that don’t get eaten go to the chickens.

I have tried many different ways of composting to find the most efficient way.

Ways to Create Compost

1. The two-chamber tumbler that you can easily turn, and put your wheel barrow under to collect the compost. This is a nice idea, but the latches on the doors are not durable enough. The tumbler is off the ground which is good for rodents, but bad for earth worms, and soil microbes. It is also a pain to lift heavy material up to put into the chambers.

Cost: High (I think this tumbler was in the $300-350 dollar range)

Labor: Medium (It’s easy to take out material, but it is hard to put it in)

Speed of compost: Fast (You can turn the material easily)

2. The standard two pile system where you add to one side until it is really full then you add material to the other side, while the first pile cooks. This is OK, but you still have to worry about leaching and rodents, and it’s a pain in the neck to shovel the compost out.

Cost: Medium (You can make these out of old pallets, but it is still more expensive than just a pile)

Labor: High (What a pain to shovel in and out)

Speed of compost: Slow (Most people will not take time to turn the pile, what a pain)

3. The pile system is good if you have a tractor or front end loader. If not, you can use a fork. I've found that if the pile is too small, it doesn't heat up enough. If the pile is about 4 feet tall, then things seem to cook well, but I don't have any science to back that up, just observation.

Cost: Low (I put low cost here, because it is taking up land space, which isn’t free)

Labor: High (Human labor can be low, if you have a tractor, but you are still using all the embodied energy in the diesel fuel)

Speed of compost: Medium (A bigger pile seems to compost a little quicker than a smaller pile)

So now that we know how to compost, I can tell you that I hardly compost at all anymore. I love solutions that are easy. We want to get rid of waste, and fertilize and amend our garden soils. Why do we need to put our organic material into a pile to do this? Why can’t we compost in place? Why bother moving it into a pile, only to be moved again later? It seems so inefficient.

A lot of permaculturalists and gardeners are going to the Ruth Stoudt method of sheet mulching or composting in place. I’ve been doing this for the past few years, and I really think it is the way to go. For me, I have a lot of grass and weed clippings, chicken manure, and leftover plant leaves and debris. Now I just spread my grass clippings thinly and evenly in my garden beds. I do keep the clippings from away from my plants, as they are hot while they are green. I try to put the clippings in areas where plants have recently finished, or in fallow areas. They do dry out in just a couple of days. When I prune, or when a plant is finished producing, I simply let it decompose in place. If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me. I put my chicken manure in swale trenches to feed my fruit trees, or in fallow areas of the garden. Chicken manure is hot, so you should keep it away from your plants, until it is composted.

Dried Grass Clippings

So at this point, the only extra step I need to make is to empty the deep litter trays in my chicken coops. This is the easiest way I have found to maintain good soil fertility and deal with any leftover organic materials. Thank you Ruth Stoudt!

~ Phil Williams

Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com.  His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.

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4 Comments

shastatodd's picture
shastatodd
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 16 2010
Posts: 49
sheet composting

i love the idea of sheet composting. it sounds easy and relatively work free. 

what we have going is 6000 sq ft of "permaculture", which is perennial white clover, that we mow 4 times a year and add that (nitrogen) to pine needles to make compost and compost tea. it is labor intensive, but i feel it is more productive than sheet composting. is my assessment accurate?

Phil Williams's picture
Phil Williams
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 14 2009
Posts: 337
ShastaTodd

Todd,

I'm not sure if it is more productive or not, given the many variables involved. In some scenarios it may be a productive way to build soils, but in others maybe not. The problem with sheet mulching is that it requires a lot of material that many times has to be purchased. The good thing is that it works well. I like that in your setup, the inputs are FREE. You may want to plant some comfrey root as well. It would be a nice addition to your compost. 

I personally do some sheet mulching when setting up intensive gardens in zone 1 and sometimes zone 2, but beyond that, I usually use cover crops and living mulches.

Phil

 

Uncletommy's picture
Uncletommy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 3 2014
Posts: 426
Fit the method to your purpose

I use both methods as they apply to my situation. Grass clippings end up in either an active pile or dried in a holding area. I cut long grass with a scythe and will pile that in the holding area(concrete mesh scavenged from construction sites and formed in a circle). Dried stuff ends up as mulch on potatoes, so I don't have to hill. The active pile is sifted through an old Massey-Harris screen once its cured and sifted compost is scattered on top of sown seeds to prevent crusting. After plants come up, I use a hand cultivator to work the compost into the surrounding soil. I have had exceptional results by using collected rain water to water this top layer. The compost absorbs moisture and I find I have to water less as the summer progresses. I live in Alberta and have access to a bunch of old plastic oil drums that I spot throughout the garden for composting collected weeds and thinnings. Everything gets a year to cure, before I spread. Big chunks, I just separate and run through again the next winter. I bank on 92 frost free days, so have to be creative in my planting schedule. Works for me. 

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1978
what we do

We have 18 raised beds and we sheet-compost on the ones lying fallow (3-4 a year) and have a compost pile to top off the beds. We've put it under a mulberry tree where it gets partial shade which, in my experience, seems necessary in the deep south or the hot sun will slow the composting by drying out the pile. Our compost pile (yeah, the books say 3 cubic feet but 4 works much better)  gets kitchen scraps, sawdust, pulled weeds--a much smaller item since we started using pine straw much--and municipal compost from a local landfill made of yard clippings and wood chips, thoroughly broken down. Occasionally we add a little sand to the mix, for texture and volume. We turn it a little with a fork every time we add to it.

This mix will no doubt change when we get our chickens.

Every spring we have 'volunteer' plants in the compost pile from inadequately turned area, usually potatoes from eyes in the kitchen scraps. We just plant them in appropriate places. I discovered that red potatoes and the "Yukon gold" variety really like our climate and soil that way!

We're looking for living mulches that work in our area, Zone 8b.

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