Composting: creating beautiful soil

In a nutshell, composting is turning food and yard waste into black gold.

In a nutshell, composting is turning food and yard waste into black gold.

There are three kinds of basic composting techniques: backyard (bin or heap), worm (vermiculture) and grasscycling, which is leaving your lawn clippings on the ground.

Nature decays the litter or top layer slowly, depending on the environmental conditions. Composting is a process that can considerably speed up this decomposition.  Adding and building this organic matter into our garden soil increases the water-holding capacity, invigorates the food web, provides a buffet of plant, insect, microbe and worm nutrients, and enhances the plants’ ability to respond to pests and disease.  It’s the single most important thing we can do as gardeners and farmers. Our goal is to achieve a bio-diverse material to meet as many nutritional needs as possible.

Depending on the space available, we can make as much of this marvelous stuff as we want, as fast as we want, and pretty well for free.

In a compost pile, microbes and worms digest plant and mineral substances, breaking these particles down to make them more bio-available to plants and other life forms. In a well-functioning, or cooking, compost, this frenzied activity (just think of bazillions of little eating, digesting and multiplying Pacmans) actually gets the pile warm, if not hot. The end product is a fully digested, stabilized organic matter called humus: a dark, crumbly soil that’s rich with beneficial fungi, bacteria, (microbes) and earthworms, as well as the enzymes and acids these life-forms release as they multiply.

Composting is not really an art or science, and nothing to be intimidated about. But there are some techniques that ensure good results.   These are a few basic rules of thumb: 1) compost piles need to have sufficient moisture and air for the worms and microbes to survive and do their job effectively; 2) the smaller the particles, the faster these microbes and worms can break it down, so chop or shred as much as you can; 3) the more times you flip or tumble the organic matter (aerate it), the faster it’ll break down; 4) the more diverse and healthy (chemical and disease-free) the materials you put in, the more diverse and healthier the nutrients will be for your plants, so mind your sources; 5) if you’re worried about attracting critters, just compost with yard waste and give your kitchen waste to someone else (never waste it!); 6) if you’re concerned about smell and sliminess, use less green (nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings) and add more browns (carbon-rich) materials and also make sure it’s not too wet; 7) if you’re concerned about unsightliness, create an attractive or out-of-sight composting area or cover the heap with a green tarp; 8) layer if you can as you go with a brown/green system (more browns), and keep those materials on hand if possible (remember to spray with water between layers so there are no dry zones);  9) add your liquids from cooking, teas and coffee as they’re also full of nutrients; and 10) “if in doubt – leave it out” when it comes to questionable materials, such as aggressive weeds and diseased plants. Most importantly, disease-causing microbial pathogens, like e-coli, can be in meat and manures, so make sure those piles are well-aerated (they usually lurk in low oxygen environments) and the materials are well-composted before using it, particularly if it’s for your food gardens.

The basic dimension formula for bins is 4’ x 4’ x 4’, preferably two or three side-by-side in order to keep flipping it to speed up the process (pallets work great and businesses like our local Napa is happy to give them away). If you can, add air tubes or get a composting fork to stir up the material to get things digesting quicker.

You’d be amazed how fast a well-functioning compost can work, particularly if you’ve sprinkled it with microbes or you can cultivate your own microbe cultures.