Making Better Dirt
Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you make it
Every year as the weather is just beginning to warm, I start paying attention to my compost bucket. As someone who rents property, I can’t commit to an enormous pile, but a five-gallon bucket with some holes drilled into it can do enough for my needs. While composting is a science (and a slew of articles online will dump every detail of that on you) it doesn’t have to be daunting—you’re only decomposing things in a strategic way, and making sure they get enough air to avoid growing mold. People have been doing it forever, and you can commit as much or as little time as you please into your own compost pile.
The goal is simply to introduce organic matter to your soil in order to furnish it with nutrients. Many of the guides you read online about this promote composting methods that are more sophisticated and designed to expedite the breakdown process, but it can be as simple as throwing your orange peels into a patch of soil and raking some leaves over them.
When people talk about composting methods, they will mainly discuss two umbrellas under which the rest fall: cold and hot composting. These are exactly as they sound; hot compost will be in large piles that maintain a higher temperature of 110° to 160° Fahrenheit, and cold compost can be in much smaller piles with no specific temperature. While the hot stuff will prevent the growth of weeds and certain bacteria, it’s a lot more work to maintain and requires a large amount of space—bigger piles of at least three by three feet are needed to retain the right amount of heat. For those of us who have table scraps, dead leaves, and old paper but not enough space and time, cold compost is a great way to go.
All compost is made by layering up “browns” and “greens” at a ratio of about 2:1, but this can be fiddled with. Browns in your compost pile, like dead leaves, paper, and dried-out garden clippings, supply carbon to the mix. These provide food for your compost microorganisms, bulk up the mixture, and let air flow through—an important factor to avoid nasty fungi and mold. Greens like food scraps are more nitrogen-heavy, allowing microorganisms in the pile to multiply. These microorganisms are what will break your compost into a consistent mush that can be mixed into your soil.
LEVELS OF LASAGNA
When I lived deep in the city, I would just take my table scraps and mix them into the dirt of my container garden a couple of months before the planting season. While this isn’t really composting, my little buckets, bags and overturned bookcases of plants impressed guests and satisfied me. Davis Hunt, Editor here at The Pamphleteer, works at a level or two beyond that. Hunt has an evolving method of cold composting that most recently involved mixing his own table scraps with compost from a soil provider.
Hunt’s compost tends to lean more carbon-heavy, as he is able to produce more with his higher amount of brown materials. “For a while,” he explains, “I was shredding junk mail and using that as the brown component, supplementing the green component with egg shells, vegetable shavings, coffee grounds, and sometimes grass clippings.” While this compost doesn’t always break down fully before he’s ready to use it, Hunt will still stir the mixture into his soil, happy to provide more nutrients to his garden.
Like my former city container garden method, he has found that doing this still leads his garden to produce “a healthy amount of cucumbers, carrots, and herbs where [he] used it the most.” His compost is an ongoing process of experimentation, and though he doesn’t have the ability right now to collect the material for a hot compost pile, Hunt is content to “make do with what comes into the house.”
My method is only slightly more involved, and likely only contains more “green” due to the differences in our diet. I keep things fairly simple: on my back porch is a five-gallon bucket with holes drilled into it (for drainage) and some wooden sticks at the bottom (for air flow). Starting with dried grass clippings, I added scraps from my produce. From here, it’s wonderfully low effort—I dump my coffee grounds, eggshells, and bits of fruits and vegetables into the bucket; layer it with old paper-like egg cartons or dried leaves; and give it a stir once in a while. What I get is a fine enough compost that, like Hunt’s, sometimes has a still-whole chunk of something in it. My garden also doesn’t seem to mind at all.
While this may sound like a far cry from detailed and laborious breakdowns of involved composting hobbies, it’s really all one needs to do to get started. “Composting is like black magic, kind of,” says Fairfax Landstreet or Fairfax Farms in Dickson. “It’s just accelerated rotting.” Landstreet is constantly at work on his farm and likes to keep his gardening simple and enjoyable. “Putting seeds in the ground is pretty easy,” he laughs. He has two piles of compost: one that is about a midsize, “warm” pile and another that is an enormous pile of woodchips. The smaller pile is made up of manure from his animals and regular table scraps. “When I get stressed I flip it with a pitchfork,” he explains. The six tons of wood chips were dropped on his farm one day by a twenty-yard truck, and he’ll move them about once a year. As these are in a big pile, they get fairly hot and steamy during the process. However, because they are all carbon-heavy materials with no nitrogen, they are not by definition “hot compost.”
These two piles are used to serve different purposes. While the more composted material is used in the soil of his garden, he’ll use his big pile of woodchips to form pathways and block the growth of weeds. Eventually, everything breaks down further in contact with the ground, supplying nutrients throughout the plot and effectively becoming compost while in use. Altogether, Landstreet's composting practice is an aside to the rest of his farm management. “The name of the game is aeration,” he declares, explaining that as long as the materials get mixed together and enough air moves throughout the pile to prevent unwanted bacteria, the compost is perfectly fine. All that pile has to do is process what goes into making it accessible to a plant. One quick tip he suggests is to use straw over dead leaves, as the hollow material is less likely to pack down and develop mold.
Landstreet has studied and toyed with other, more involved composting processes for his own enjoyment. A permanent student, one recent experiment was a fish emulsion. “Most of the information I found [about fish emulsion] was from Pacific Islanders,” he explains, but he adapted that information to fit methods that were accessible to him. Luckily, there are lakes in his area that need fish taken out of them as a matter of management. Landstreet will collect some fish—the smaller the better— and chop them up, mixing that with equal parts of sawdust. From here, he’ll dilute one teaspoon of molasses into a couple of gallons of water and stir that into the fishy sawdust. It’s a different take on the age-old legend of the Native Americans teaching Europeans to bury a fish under each plant. Though he hasn’t used this mixture in his garden yet, he believes that it turned out well and enjoyed the process anyway.
While a hobby for most of us, composting can be a very serious business for some. A woman near Fairfax Farms runs a worm farm, collecting the castings they leave behind. She’ll then sell these castings for five dollars per pound. That’s a pretty steep price for dirt! While many farmers may struggle to build their compost pile in the winter, when everything but manure is cold and brown, one permaculture method of winter building allows hot compost to thrive. These farmers will snake hot water pipes through their compost pile, building the “lasagna layers” on top of them. Keeping the compost hot year-round allows all of the materials layered in to decompose faster, helping the permaculture farm to keep to its credo of “waste not, want not.”
YOU DO WHAT YOU CAN
Whether you have a small apartment with some tomato plants in bags or ninety acres of farmland to maintain, composting is a hobby that gives back. There are only a few absolutely necessary staples to keep your pile (or bucket) healthy: One, mix together some amount of “brown” ingredients like paper or straw with “green” ingredients like manure or food scraps. Two, make sure you give that mush a good stir once in a while. And finally, make sure your pile is getting enough airflow. This can be done by keeping it in an outdoor pile, drilling holes in a bucket, or buying a container specifically made for compost. With these basic steps, you have everything you need and are free to explore and experiment on your own. Whether you choose to dump food scraps into some dirt, carefully curate a perfect ratio, chop up some little fish, or run new pipes through your property, it’s all about what you have the time and will for. It’s just dirt, after all!