Compost, let it rot

One of my earliest memories is of the compost heap at the bottom of the garden. My brother John and I would go and hide there, behind the raspberry canes, and poke into the dark brown, rich-earthy-smelling compost and sometimes pick out the dark red, skinny worms that lived there. It was probably John who handled the worms, I was a bit squeamish about them as a toddler. This garden was a postage-stamp, city garden in northwest London, measuring about 15 feet by 20 feet.

As long as I can remember we made compost from garden and kitchen waste, and I continue today on a larger scale and in a different climate. Modern science has not made it easier however. A leaflet put out by Natural Resources Canada’s northern forestry centre described a method “developed at the University of California”, requiring “considerable labour”. To get high temperature, sweet-smelling, rapid composting, you need to have plenty of oxygen, and the right amount of moisture. This requires that “the pile is turned at least once a week” (I love this - “it is turned,” who does the hard work?), and watered lightly during the process. More frequent turning shortens the time required to produce compost.

As the leaflet explained, composting is carried out by bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes, which are all present in garden residues. The first organisms in the process work at ambient temperature, followed by organisms that are active at successively higher temperatures. A small active compost pile has an internal temperature of 55°C or more, although turning and watering temporarily lower it. The high temperature kills off flies (eggs, larvae and adults) and weed seeds and many plant disease organisms.
(Unfortunately the leaflet has disappeared from Natural Resources Canada’s website in 2013.)

Many composters or bins sold to consumers are not quite big enough to allow the compost to heat up sufficiently, although if black, the sun helps it heat up. We have one close to the house which we use in the winter for kitchen waste, when we don’t want to struggle through the snowdrifts to the main compost heap. In the summer it certainly gets hot, but it may be too dry too.

Our compost heap is in a metal frame about 4 x 4 x 4 feet cube, which allows a tidy, compact pile to be made. We don’t put grass cuttings on as they can smell, unless put in a thin layer or mixed in with dry garden waste and turned frequently to aerate. We leave our grass, clover, trefoil, and dandelion cuttings on the lawn, or use them as mulch in a thin layer in the vegetable garden to keep down weeds. For compost organisms, the right carbon-nitrogen ratio is required, and grass is high in nitrogen. Woody materials are high in carbon, so mixing the two produces the right ratio. Don’t put grass cuttings on your compost heap if you have recently used weed killers or pesticides, leave them on the lawn (or stop using pesticides).

The New Brunswick department of environment has information on “other ways to compost”, that do not require physical labour, including cold composting, burying in holes and trenches in the garden, and mulching.
and a helpful list “Can I compost this?”.

Compost more in 2004. I’m trying to compost more and now add soiled cardboard that can’t be recycled, used tissues, lint from the dryer (mostly cat hair and natural fibres) and vacuum-cleaner dust. We have a gerbil who shreds one or two card boxes a day, and this shredded card is sprinkled over the compost heap too, once a week. Mixed with green material this provides a good balance of carbon and nitrogen.

A household compost heap is unlikely to attract nuisance wildlife, although large-scale municipal compost sites will. However if you do add items that are attractive to animals (usually not recommended, such as chicken bones) you can cover them with some soil, or bury them separately. Dig a hole, leave the soil in a pile next to it. As you add material, cover each layer with a little soil. If you have dogs or cats you should bury their wastes too, rather than add them to compost that goes on a vegetable garden. Rabbit, poultry, horse, cow, pig, and sheep manure all help compost.

Using compost. Tests have shown that urban compost (the rapid, labour-intensive kind) has pH 6.5, available nitrogen 0.25%, phosphate 0.2% and potash 1.2%. Although these are low nutrient values, the phosphorus and nitrogen are in a form readily available to plants.

Perhaps composting seems complicated. The NRC leaflet made it sound hard work. But it doesn’t have to be. Garden and kitchen waste breaks down in time whatever you do or don’t do. No additives are necessary. Composting will save our municipalities money, and reduce the need for new landfills.

Backyard Magic:
Can I compost this?.
Lee Valley Tools Ltd, had two pages of compost pails and tools in their 2004 Garden tools catalogue, including a small “rolling composter” that makes turning and aerating the compost very easy (expensive at $189). (search for composting) In 2013 they have a rolling composter with two compartments for $109.