Anytime we have a season change, compost becomes more important. Most of us are thinking how can I do it all, keep up with my summer garden?! Harvesting takes more time than waiting for the plants to produce. There’s more watering to do in summer. Yet, fall is now soon upon us and making compost takes a wee bit of time and is so needed to give our plants a good start! Here are some possibilities!
There are 3 basic kinds of compost, cold and hot and composting in place.
Of the cold kind….
Some is never finished and never used. The pile is too far away, unwatered, unturned, the gardener doesn’t care how long it takes. It’s often just forgotten….
Then there is the ‘I turn it once in awhile’ type. That kind usually does get used, eventually, sorta. But old and dried out, nutrients leached away, there is no life in it. Spread the stuff out as a mulch and start over, or let it go and just buy what you need. No shame in that.
The kind that gets turned regularly often gets raided before completely finished. You can still make out some of what the stuff is that’s there. That works just fine because it decomposes, finishes quickly, in the ground, at home with all the lovely soil organisms.
The kind that finishes the quickest is the kitchen veggie waste that gets chopped vigorously with the shovel every few days, turned and turned again. The pile is worked! The dry brown material in the pile isn’t usually harder to ‘chop’ straw; it’s more like leaves, some already chopped, partially decomposed mulch type stuff. In a community garden you might not have space for such a pile. If you do, toss a thin layer of soil over it to keep flies away, and to keep it from being unsightly to visitors cover it with a light layer of straw to keep it out of sight. That will keep it moist and it will decompose better rather than off gas the Nitrogen, dry and die. The straw is instantaneous to remove, then you can have at that pile with gusto! With that kind of pile, you have a fairly steady supply of compost. Most of the time some of it is ready to put here and there.
Hot Compost is PDF, pretty darn fast!
It can heat up to amazing temps, so hot it makes ash and you cannot put your hands in it without getting burned. You can see it steaming on a winter morning! The point is to kill diseases, pests, weed seeds. Well that almost gets done, because, you see, the heat is in the middle of the pile. So they say turn it so the hot part goes to the outside and the cool part to the inside. That, my friends, is easier said than done. But, at least some of it happens.
Two interesting points here. My cold compost pile gets that hot! Yep, it does. A well built pile with thin layers will cook quite happily no matter your intention. It’s nature. The other thing is I don’t put diseased plants or seeding weeds in my pile, so I don’t need it to get hot. Sure, some pest eggs probably make it. However, what happens most is veggie seeds sprout when I put the compost in to amend my soil! I swear, I can’t see those seeds when it is compost. It all looks dark and yummy. But lots of times I’m glad that happens! The plants get a terrific start and I get surprises! This year I enjoyed two elegant celery plants that came up about a foot and a half from each other and everyone complimented how beautiful they were, robust, with gorgeous long dark green stalks!
Whether you do hot or cold compost is your choice. I’ve tried it both ways. Sincerely. Got a long thermometer, built cubic yard piles and turned them. Now I have cold compost and turn it. No way around that turning if you want results sooner than later. It doesn’t matter what size I build it. I’ve seen 1 cubic foot piles heat up just fine! If it gets hot, it’s hot. If it doesn’t that’s fine with me. Taking care of it, turning, keeping it moist, making thin layers gets the job done. My friend who chops his with vigor gets faster results, and I may take that up too.
Composting in place
No dig composting in place is an age old technique more recently called Lasagna Gardening. It takes some prep time, that is often done with a group of friends, but once that is done, you’re home free! There’s no turning, no carrying finished compost about because it is already where you want it! Materials may take longer to decompose. It is a cold pile, but if your pile is directly on the earth, soil organisms happily munching, things happen quickly. It takes a lot of materials to start depending on the size you want your garden to be. You can start with a small area, add more later.
The beauty is it can be done on top of a lawn to form a raised bed, with or without a box border. If you have lawn where you want to plant, peel back the lawn or not, lay down cardboard or newspaper to kill off the lawn, prevent it growing back, up into your bed. If you choose cardboard, water a LOT to soak that cardboard. Layer to your heart’s content until you run out of materials. You can make beds 18″ high to start. They will settle a lot. That 18″ can easily become 9″ in two or three days in warm weather! You can plant instantly! Just pull back a planting hole, add some ready or nursery-bought compost and any other amendments right for your plant, and plant! Your amazing ‘lasagna’ will decompose and make beautiful soil without you doing a thing more! Add more materials as you acquire them to any spots you want to build up or if you want more compost or a bigger or another bed!
If you are doing composting in place while gardening, you just put on the layers, between the plants or down a row, with the materials you have on hand until you run out. The smaller the chop, the pieces, the faster the decomp.
Trenching has always been the super simple way of putting chopped veggie kitchen wastes to work. Dig, pull back a 6″ trench, no deeper is needed for most annuals. Put in the stuff, cover and forget it. Period. A week later you can dig in that area and not find a trace of it. Soil organisms are intelligent and hungry.
Hugelkultur, hill mound, is another variation of ‘composting’ in place. It can be above and/or below ground and takes a lot more energy to start but what a payoff! Get some big logs, branches. If you are doing it above ground, lay two logs closely side by side, put a lot of bigger to smaller branches between them, then go for it! Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wriggler casting worms if you have them. As possible add your materials in thin 1/2 to 1″ layers, dry, wet, dry, wet until the area is filled. Lay a third log on top of them and if you have sod you peeled up, lay it on top of the whole pile upside down and do it again! Top the turf with grass clippings, seaweed, compost, aged manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc. Top that with soil and plant your veggies! If you did it right, you end up with a steep sided tall pyramid pile and veggies planted at easy picking heights. See a LOT more and example variations at permaculture, practical solutions for self-reliance.
If you are starting a raised Hugelkultur bed, dig down about a foot or more, lay in the big logs, big branches around them, smaller branches on top, layer as above to the height you want, allowing for settling. The difference is that this is a flat top raised bed.
Container gardeners you can do your own mini Hugelkultur version as well. A 1/2 beer barrel, a five gallon can, kid’s swimming pool, whatever you have, can be repurposed! Just be sure there are drainage holes. Double purpose your container by making it a self watering system as well!
Hugelkultur is an excellent long term sustainable choice!
~ The logs and branches soak up water and hold it, so less water is needed after the first year.
More clever tips!
- At intervals, near the center of your compost pile, place handfuls of old compost or fresh rich soil, as an infusion, an inoculant of soil making organisms.
- In dry SoCal, I cover my compost pile to keep it from drying out, and I never need to water it.
- When cold composting and composting in place, add red wriggler worms to chomp up materials. They add worm castings that help your plants’ immune systems and uptake of nutrients.
- Be smart, add herbs! Penny Woodward says: ‘Regular handfuls of chamomile, dandelion and yarrow leaves and flowers will all speed up decomposition of the compost with YARROW being the most effective. Yarrow also adds copper, nitrates, phosphates and potash while chamomile adds calcium and ‘sweetens’ the mixture. Dandelions contribute copper, iron and potash. Nettles are problem weeds but they actually improve the quality of the soil they are growing in and when added to the compost they contribute iron and nitrogen. Tansy adds potassium, which is very important for plant growth while valerian increases the phosphorous content so essential for good flowers and fruits [but is invasive!]. Probably the most useful compost plant is COMFREY. The leaves are rich in potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphates. I keep a clump growing next to the compost and add a handful of leaves whenever I throw in kitchen scraps.’