Most of the gardening books regale the reader with the importance and wonderfulness of compost. It is touted as something so valuable it would seem to be essential to a healthy garden and landscape. At the same time, with a cursory review of how to make compost, the average yardener may very well balk at the serious time it takes to make compost of any volume. Composting is not for everyone.
We offer this section to help you decide if composting is for you. You may not seek to make what is called "active" compost, but find the idea of a "passive" compost pile a reasonable yard care technique. For some, the idea of composting with worms may seem attractive especially if there are small children in the family.
Perhaps the most attractive option for yardeners will be making "compost tea", described in some detail in this section. This technique allows the yardener to make very valuable use of a relatively small amount of compost produced each year in a "passive" compost pile. Compost tea systems are still in the development stage, but we feel that within a year or two, compost tea will begin to become a routine tool in the home landscape.
Compost vs. Composting
Using compost in caring for landscape plants is still touted in magazines and newspapers. What bothers me is the assumption in many of these articles that lots and lots of folks still make their own compost. In fact the opposite is true – few people make their own compost any more. Few use compost in their yards.
Backyard composting came into its own in the seventies along with recycling, exploding fuel prices, and communes. Back then I was sucked into the wonderfulness of making your own compost. Being an obsessive in most activities, I made lots and lots of compost each year; enough to more than fill a large pickup truck.
I worked compost into the soil in all the garden beds every year. I worked compost in my potting soils for plants growing in containers. Every year I laid an inch layer of compost under all the trees and shrubs on the property. I was a compost groupie of the first order. Thinking back I wasn’t obsessive. I was nuts.
Then about ten years ago, I had an epiphany. While it was obvious that all the plants on my property thrived with their annual hit of finished compost, I learned I could get the same results, healthy landscape plants, doing only 20% of the work. Talk about bursting one’s favorite bubble.
There is a composting technique that has been called “sheet composting”. Today we call it applying organic mulch. As I’ve advised in this website for years, if you leave a 3 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch, such as chopped leaves, over the surface of all the garden beds, the critters living in that soil will pull those leaves down into the soil and guess what; they turn it into compost. Only it’s called humus when it is below the surface of the soil.
Stuff not appropriate for mulching such as twigs and sticks I collect each season and all the weeds that snuck up through the mulch is stored in an unobtrusive pile behind the garage. I need no bins. I don’t even need a shredder. The material in a passive pile will naturally turn into compost in three or four years. You harvest it by moving the top of the pile to the side and capturing the wonderful black gold, chunks and all, that has formed at the bottom of the pile.
Yes, I need more compost to perk up my gardens and lawn than I can make using the passive method. But I’ve learned that since I’m using mulch universally, the smaller amount of compost I need can be purchased in 40 pound bags at the garden center. For under $15, I can buy a high quality finished compost, such as Organimax, and my compost needs are taken care of (see independent garden centers including English Gardens and Bordines).
So, truth be told, I am still a compost nut, but I don’t spend much time making it.
I WROTE A BOOK ABOUT COMPOSTING IN 1992 FOR ORTHO BOOKS WHICH CAN STILL BE PURCHASED. IN MY MODEST OPINION IT IS A VERY GOOD BOOK FOR FOLKS WANTING TO GET STARTED.
My partner Nancy Szerlag, weekly garden columnist for the Detroit News for 16 years took a Master Composter's Course in 1998 in McComb County Michigan, this book was the text book for the course.
Final Observations About Your Choices
After sorting through all the options offered in this chapter, there basically three models for making compost. The simplest, low maintenance approach is to put organic material into a pile or into a bin and let it sit there until it rots. That is called the passive compost pile. It is probably the most common approach to composting at the moment.
[Photo - basic compost pile with no enclosure]
The second model, probably the most effective yet low maintenance approach is one in which the home composter turns the pile at least once, but seldom more than twice. That one turning should get the internal temperatures up high enough to kill disease pathogens and weed seeds. Two turnings means a more thorough heating of all the material. Then the pile is left to decompose with not more energy expended by the homeowner. We think this is the best approach to composting for most people.
[Photo - shows single bin with door open for turning compost]
The third model is for the composting enthusiast, the person for whom composting is almost a hobby. Here the compost pile is built with care and is turned frequently enough so that the finished product is ready within a month or two. This is called the active composting technique. It produces outstanding compost but it takes much more time and energy on the part of the home composter.
[Photo - Showing three bin system with someone moving stuff from one bin to next]
All three approaches, with any of the variations on each approach, produce compost. The differences will be in the time and energy invested by the homeowner, the amount of technology involved in terms of tools and supplies, and the design of the bin or bins used in the process, and the final composition of the compost. In the next chapter you'll learn how to make best use of the "black gold".
For information about commercial composting products available go to the Compost Equipment Page in the Tool Shed section of this website