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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Compost: Keeping it slow

In November 1985, I stepped into my new backyard eager to start a compost pile. How hard could that be? Reading Organic Gardening had convinced me that I could transform garden waste into “black gold” in short order. We’d just moved in, and the materials available were fall leaves, mostly from Norway maples that surrounded our lot and a huge red oak next to the garage. After doing my best to create a rectangular base layer out of leaves, I threw on some soil, added more leaves, and proceeded in that way. My pile didn’t have the vertical sides of the ones in the magazine diagrams. It was shaped more like a sand dune than a box.
            Despite my great plan, by the next summer the oak and maple leaves in my embryonic compost pile had not turned into lovely leaf mold. What I had instead was a pile of matted leaves. The mound had sunk to a third of its original size, and the leaves had clumped together in rough sheets, but they were still whole. Clearly there was more to composting than I’d thought.
            Over the next 25 years, I learned that making compost takes longer than the sixty to ninety days I’d been led to expect. I developed a lazy woman’s process that worked for me. I built two side-by-side chicken wire bins and later added two more near the vegetable garden. In spring, I mostly added grass clippings. In midsummer, I had less grass to compost and more weeds and prunings from the garden. In autumn, the lawn started growing again, and a huge volume of fallen leaves needed to be dealt with. I gathered up most of the leaves to use as mulch, but some made their way into the compost piles. At the end of the growing season, I moved vegetable stalks, spent annuals, and perennials cut down for winter from the garden beds to the piles. I could have sped up the process if I’d been willing to balance proportions of nitrogen- and carbon-predominant ingredients and turn and water the piles. It just seemed like too much work. If I just left them alone for two years, my piles did indeed yield real compost. Here’s a picture of one-year-old pile I started last year. To its right is the bin I just emptied onto the vegetable garden:

            I still had the feeling, though, that I wasn’t doing composting right. Starting in 2010, I went on a quest to learn from master composters. I attended a lecture about large-scale composting done at Battery Park in New York City. I toured my city’s yard waste composting operation. I consulted two local experts, a permaculture gardener whose method, reassuringly, was a lot like my own, and a neighbor who kept worms in his kitchen for vermicomposting and saved urine in jars for adding nitrogen to his outdoor compost pile. Finally I got my compost tested for biological activity by the lab at Soil Foodweb. The result: the slow, cold-composting approach I was using was good enough. There were lots of happy microbes in my finished compost.
            My slothful method had a side benefit. In addition to generating usable compost, it also helped give birth to a new perspective on my role in the garden. I didn’t have to make garden waste decompose, I could just relax, let the expert decomposers in the soil do their thing, and enjoy the benefits. “Compost happens.”


  1. After attending a special county extension training on vermiculture I carefully separated my compost into worm friendly and not worm friendly materials. I kept skin irritants like citrus, onion, garlic, and chilis out of the worm friendly pile. Two years later I noticed that there were more worms in the "not worm friendly" pile. Apparently the worms didn't get the memo! The not worm friendly pile was better aerated and got more rain water - better habitat, irritants aside.

    1. Exactly my experience--there's expert advice, and then there's what happens in my own garden, often quite different. Every woman has to be her own sustainable gardening expert, I guess, or at least her own citizen naturalist.

  2. Excellent post! Very accessible, and the logical and thorough learning process highlighted is inspiring to new gardeners!