A Composter’s Manifesto

Composting works. That’s really all people need to know about it. Why is it that we keep trying to make it so scary and complicated?

Amanda and I attended a workshop Saturday on transitioning gardens for the fall. By and large, it was well-prepared, interesting, and relevant to our needs, so we were glad we had taken the time to attend. The only disappointing aspect of the workshop was the short portion of it that dealt with composting, choked with admonitions about what we must do and what we must not do if we are to have good compost. Amanda told me later that she could feel the anger rising in me as we sat together and listened; she’s a perceptive woman.

I didn’t say anything Saturday, and it’s probably just as well. I would have only frustrated the conscientious gardeners who had donated their time and expertise as a gift to the community. So rather than vent my spleen at them, I’ll vent it with you.

All of us should be composting, especially those who don’t garden. As every gardener knows, you can never have too much good compost. If you’re not gardening, you know a gardener who would gladly trade you some bounty for good compost. Trust me on that one.

Here are the tools you must have to compost:

Got it? Good. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. There’s only one “must” rule about composting: you must learn to ignore people who tell you what you must or must not do when composting.

Now with that out of the way, I’m willing to describe how we compost. However, you’re only allowed to read past this point if you first affirm that you’re likely to ignore what I say and do it some other way.

When we built the cages for our fruit trees from hog wire, we discovered how easy hog wire is to work with and to shape, so it was a natural evolution for us to use it for our compost. We have two piles, one for “regular” compost from food scraps and garden refuse, and the other for humanure. We keep them separate because, even though we know that the humanure compost will be perfectly safe to use by the time it’s finished its two-year schedule, we just don’t want to have to deal with the “ick” factor from our friends and family, so we will use humanure compost only on the ornamentals.

The pile you probably care about is the first, the “regular” pile. It has had an Elmer Fudd-esque evolution as we have struggled to find the right combination of exclusions to allow our compost to rest in peace. The next time we do it, it will be simpler. It now consists of a 4-foot diameter circle of 47-inch hog wire – similar to this – attached with lightweight wire to a t-post. It’s wrapped in chicken wire, with a lid fashioned from saplings lashed into a circle and covered with chicken wire. The lid is lashed to the hog wire at one point so that it opens easily on the side that faces our home but stays in place and drops back into position when we release it.

But I get ahead of myself. For us, composting begins in the kitchen, where we keep a small canister on the counter for compostable materials. Whenever this small canister fills up, or when we’re going to be gone for a while, one of us takes it outside to the compost pile, lifts the lid, and empties the contents onto the pile. We rinse the container with a little water from the outdoor shower and then bring it inside so it’s ready for more. We are “equal opportunity” composters. Corn cobs, vegetable peels, and fruit seeds go into the compost, of course, but also eggshells, meat scraps, and paper of all kinds, including the wax paper we use when heating food in the microwave oven.

From time to time, one of us will catch a whiff of the compost pile. When we do, we place on it a little of the hay we always keep on hand. Our neighbor Joe Jeffcoat supplies our hay, and he uses no picloram in his fields. That’s all it takes to keep the pile from smelling, just a little hay every now and then. We could just as easily use leaves, or straw, or pine straw, or even shredded paper, but hay is what we have on hand, so it’s what we usually use.

Every now and then we will notice the ants beginning to take up residence in the pile. That’s an indication that it’s too dry. If it’s moist enough, the critters digesting it will keep the heat level high and discourage the ants. So the ants are our moisture meter. If we see them, we know it’s time to water the compost. We fill a two-gallon watering can and pour it gently all around the top of the pile. If it seems really dry, we do that twice. Within 24 hours, the ants will be gone.

Let me interject here a note about moisture in a compost pile. Nearly every explanation I have read about composting includes (in addition to a generous list of “musts” and “must nots”) an admonition to avoid over-watering the compost pile. “Too much water,” goes a typical instruction, “can actually drown the organisms that are breaking down your compost.” Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. As a practical matter, you have to work at it, I mean really work at it, to add too much water to your compost. The chances that your compost is too dry are way better than the chances that it’s too wet. And too much water in a compost pile is kind of like being too warm in the winter or too cold in the summer. Not only is it rare; when it happens it’s easy to fix. If your compost pile is above ground – and most piles are – the excess moisture from the pile will drain off within an hour or two. And the critters will be fine.

We never turn the pile while it’s in the cage; too much trouble. When the pile gets up above two feet or so, we remove the cage and transfer the pile up the hill to a spot where I can get at it from all sides with Tractor’s bucket, and we begin turning it about twice per week and keeping it moist. Within six weeks or so, it’s finished compost, ready to use on Veg Hill.

As soon as we’ve removed the compost from the spot where the cage had been, we re-install the cage, spread a fresh layer of hay, and begin building a new pile.

Here are some questions people often ask us about compost:

Doesn’t it draw animals and vermin?

Yes, it did draw animals before we secured it properly. You can read here about our trials and travails here. Although a small mouse could probably pass through the chicken wire we have wrapped around our compost pile, we haven’t seen any evidence of mice yet, and we’ve been doing this now for a couple of years. My guess is that in order to get to what they care about, the mice would have to burrow through a lot of stuff they don’t. That’s just a guess, though. All I can tell you with confidence is that we haven’t yet had a problem.

If you don’t want to go to the trouble to secure your compost – and honestly, most people don’t – avoid putting meat scraps or animal tissue into it. Fruit and veggie scraps rarely draw animals or vermin.

How can you bear stacking up garbage in your yard?

Thank you for helping point out what keeps many of us from composting. We’re conditioned to regard the deterioration of organic matter as unhealthy, if not downright scary. Amanda and I certainly don’t think of our compostable material as “garbage.” Rather, it’s the most important ingredient of the best fertilizer we can find. We take genuine delight in watching our compost develop, because we know what it will mean for the fertility of our soil.

My neighbor has maggots in her compost. How can I prevent that?

You don’t want to. Chances are the maggots your neighbor has are soldier fly larvae, not fruit fly larvae. And soldier flies are good guys. They never bite people or pets or carry disease. They don’t eat bugs either, which is too bad, but they basically just mind their own business. Soldier fly larvae (“maggots” to you) are the “first line” of organisms that break down kitchen scraps. They secrete a digestive enzyme that tells other flies they shouldn’t lay their eggs there, and then they proceed to eat through the kitchen scraps at a prodigious rate. Their poop is far easier for the smaller critters to digest than the food itself, so soldier fly larvae actually speed up the composting process.

There’s an aphorism about organic gardening that seems apropos here: “One creature’s poop is another creature’s pleasure.”

How do you know how much water to add?

If you sprinkle water on your compost and it doesn’t drain out the bottom, you haven’t added too much and can probably add some more. A well-moistened compost pile breaks down much faster than a dry one.

Doesn’t your compost pile look crummy with those napkins and paper lying around in it?

First, it doesn’t look crummy to us, because we know how wonderful compost is. But if your boss or your Aunt Martha is coming to see you and the pile’s appearance is bothering you, it’s easy to fix. Just pick up some of the material from the bottom of the pile and throw it on top, and if you still see something you don’t like, follow up with a little hay, leaves, straw, or glass clippings on top. And for the reasons we’ve already discussed, follow that up with a little extra water.

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