The many benefits of compost in a garden are worth discussing, but more importantly, how to set up a composting system in your backyard that makes sense is even more worthy of discussion. Composting should cost nothing, take minimal effort, and give back huge returns to your garden. In this episode I talk about strategies to make that happen.
Good Gardens Are All About Healthy Soil
One fundamental difference between conventional gardening and permaculture gardening is that the former is based on a principle of broken soil, while the latter is based on principle of building healthy soil. Conventional gardening requires constant amendments with chemical or other fertilizers. Permaculture gardens, by contrast, only require an annual addition of organic material to the top layer. Just like a forest floor, the organic material is in a constant state of being broken down into rich, healthy soil.
Advantages of Compost:
- Nutrients (not only from the compost itself, but from the activity of beneficial fungi & micro-organisms)
- Improved soil structure (just the right amount air, and the loose soil facilitates root growth)
- Ideal water retention and displacement. Healthy soil with lots of organic matter retains water very well, but it also displaces water, you will rarely see the water pooling and running when the soil is full of organic matter.
How to Compost the Easy Way
There are two basic approaches to composting, “hot composting” and “cold composting”. Hot composting works the fastest, but takes the most work, involving constant turning and ongoing management of moisture levels. Cold composting works much more slowly, but basically involves throwing everything in, and walking away – that’s way easier, it’s what I do, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in the paragraphs that follow.
- In your gardens beds
The simplest way to compost is in your garden beds. Add a layer of rough organic matter on top of your garden each fall, and just let it work and break down all winter long. I do this buy emptying out my compost stations in November, running them through a pretty loose screen, and then spreading that on top of each garden bed. For a 4’ x 10’ area, about half a wheel barrow will do (3 – 4 cubic feet). I don’t do this with all my gardens beds, just the ones that seem to need it based on their performance the previous season. Some beds have soil that is so healthy, they get all they need from the layer of mulch that is breaking down. In fact, in some of my best garden beds the soil is black, loose and fantastic, and all I do is add a few inches of old hay to them each fall. That’s the ultimate goal for your soil: to have soil that is so healthy and full of life that the mulch itself is all that is needed, with the worms and microorganisms doing everything else.
- Make piles
No need to buy a big plastic container or build a box. If you have the room, just make a pile of organic material (leaves, grass clippings, etc.) and leave it. Every fall, take the rotten stuff from the bottom and put it on your garden, and leave the rest to continue to break down. If you have the space, make a number of piles.
- Make boxes
If you must have a box, just bear in mind that whatever you make it from, it’s going to rot or wear out over time, so it’s really not worth the expense to get too fancy. My property backs onto a forest, so I used fallen trees to make my compost stations – it cost nothing and took an afternoon. Old pallets also work great if you can find them, or any ready-made box-like thing that you may see at someone’s curb on garbage day. At the end of the day it’s up to you, your wallet size, and your individual of taste, all I’m saying here is that it can be fun to use your imagination and repurpose something that might be on its way to the landfill site.
- Composting in the Wilderness
If you are like me and live on the edge of a forest, then you know that putting food scraps in a box in the back yard is probably a bad move. Not only do the wild animals make a heck of a mess, but this will also attract bears to your property, putting you and your family at risk. You can still compost in such a situation, you just have to compost thing that carnivores and herbivores don’t like to eat. I put layers of yard waste and fairly green horse manure in my compost bins each fall (horse manure is typically free). After a year, it’s mostly broken down, and gets spread over my gardens the following fall.
- The Compost Garden
I’ve already talked about composting in your garden beds, but you can also garden in your compost bins! I grow potatoes in mine because they are outside the fence that encloses my garden, and because they are about the only plant that the deer, rabbits, raccoons and porcupines seem to leave alone. Potatoes also add a lot of organic matter to your soil with their elaborate root structures. If you don’t have animal problems, then the sky is the limit, although I would say large plants are easier to deal with, such as potatoes and squashes. Since I have four composting stations, I typically leave one with nothing growing in it, so that I can throw weeds into it all summer long. If you’ve never tried this, you will be amazed at how well plants grow in a compost bin!