Compose Gardening

A personal compost pile likely won't become as large as this industrial compost pile, but the advantages of making your own compost remain the same. Ted Sponsel photo

Here is my secret desire: to own a Bobcat Compact Track Loader. At $77,000 it is beyond my means, but still I imagine myself hopping in and spending hours grooming my compost. That is what happens when you visit one of the largest compost piles in the world, at Kew Gardens in London — you get ideas above your station.

Back here on Earth, I have a very ordinary three-sectioned container. Three of the outsides and the two dividers inside are constructed of repurposed concrete blocks. Three scavenged wood pallets function as front doors, one per section, that can be opened to provide easy access.

New materials are thrown into the first compartment. After they age down and are partially cooked, they are pitch-forked into the second compartment. This aerates the pile and helps it keep cooking, and also empties the first section for new organic garbage. There the contents sit until they look like soil, with only a few bits whose original forms are still identifiable. Then it is thrown into the third section to finish decomposing. When the compost is basically indistinguishable from soil, with a clean earthy odor, it is ready. And so it goes; as soon as a section is emptied, it is refilled with new, intermediate or almost finished compost always working away.

I use it as mulch around plants, to suppress weeds and feed the soil. At the end of the season, I top off my now empty beds so that they are full and ready for planting in the spring. The nutrients in the compost will dribble into the soil below during the rains of late fall and spring. I fill buckets with compost and set them outside next to the back door. Come spring, I will put a thin layer around the plants I have over-wintered in the garage, giving them a little boost for spring reawakening.

Finally, I will start my seedlings in it, which is heretical to those who claim that you must buy sterile seed starting medium each spring or else risk losing your plants to diseases. I still advise folks new to gardening do that. However, I grew up around gardeners who depended on their plots to feed their families, and they would have gotten a good belly laugh at the notion of spending money that way. It never made sense to me to raise seedlings in a germ-free soil, only to throw them out into the cruel, disease-infested world and expect them to thrive. Using my own compost has never caused me any trouble, and, over the last few years I have read several blogs that practically whispered that they, too, use their own soil or compost for seed starting.

If you have never composted, this is the perfect time of the season to start. Why send the dead and dying remnants of summer to the dump when they can help your soil and save you money? You don’t need to buy or make a fancy container. Find a spot in your yard that will accommodate a heap; the closer to your house it is, the more likely you are to keep adding to the pile all winter long.

You can find an exact recipe in the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service publication, “The Compost Heap,” by Heidi Rader. (I am about to shamelessly steal her work.) She says to use a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1 by weight if you want the fastest results. If you think of carbons as browns and nitrogen as greens, it is easier to figure out what you are throwing into your heap.

She even provides a handy chart. Greens include poultry, horse and cow manure, as well as fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds and your garden’s foliage, vines and stems. Browns are leaves, dried grass clippings, straw, paper and newspaper, and sawdust. Don’t add diseased plants, weed with seeds on them, grease or meat scraps. Especially don’t add the waste produced by your dogs or cats. This is a health issue, not one of stink or looks. If you happen to have a pig hanging about your backyard, don’t add porky’s poop in either, as your pile will not get hot enough to destroy pathogens.

Rader also gives examples of how to calculate the right proportions, including using a composting calculator. You weigh and shred, then layer the greens and browns and add enough water that it reaches what she calls a “wet sponge” consistency. You will need a thermometer so that you know when the center reaches the temperature recommended of 150 degrees and then falls back to 120 degrees, signaling it needs to be turned. Turn it enough times and it will eventually stop heating up. Then you leave it to cure for a month or two or three and then use it. 

But here is my truth: I don’t weigh, shred, mix, water or turn my compost pile. I make my piles from what I pull out of the ground or bring out from my kitchen. I have chickens and a hedgehog, so I have a ready supply of used straw. When I didn’t have animals, I bought a bale just for my compost. If my pile starts to stink, which means too many greens, I throw on some straw. If nothing seems to be heating up, meaning not enough greens and I am out of garden and kitchen waste, we rake up freshly mown grass, rather than leaving it on the lawn to decompose and feed the lawn. When all else fails, I ask Ted to pee in a bucket and I throw that on a dead pile.

Stop flinching. Urine is used all over the world to fertilize plants. As I have noted in previous columns, the Scientific American has said, “Urine is chock full of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which are the nutrients plants need to thrive ... despite the gross-out potential ... urine poses no health risks.”

According to the Swedish Institute of Infectious Disease Control, “humans rarely excrete disease-causing organisms ... in urine ... for urine used for growing food ... allow one month to pass after urine-fertilization before harvesting crops that are eaten raw ... “So, if it is fine for your plants, as these publications say, it is equally useful as a nitrogen starter for lazy compost.

My style of composting is much more akin to cold composting, where you establish a pile and let it be until it decomposes. It may take a year, but so what? I don’t have the time or interest for all the calculations. Plus, to be frank, I no longer have the back needed for turning hot compost.

Consider making this the year you start composting. What have you got to lose?

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.