What Can I Put Into the Compost Pile? (And other thoughts on composting)

There is a rhythm to life. Birth. Growth. Production. Decay. It’s the pattern that every living thing must go through. We were formed from the earth and to the earth we will return.

Decay is essential for new life to begin.

When it comes to healthy soil, it is the spent life of decaying things that will energize the soil biology to create fertility for young seeds to germinate, and for tender seedlings to grow. This is why compost is essential to the home garden.

We’ve been conditioned to see the soil as a dead thing that needs to be worked and pillaged and fed a steady diet of synthetic fertilizer in order for it to produce food. Till it and throw some 10-10-10 on it and then expect good results.

However, the soil is not a dead thing that needs manipulated, but rather a medium teeming with living organisms. Once we begin to understand this we should quickly realize that there is a better way to manage our soil, and how connected to it we really are. Feeding the soil a steady diet of crap will only yield crap in the end. Just like a diet of junk food will leave our own bodies bloated, malnourished and out of balance.

Applying healthy compost to the soil will feed the billions of microorganisms that not only contribute to growing healthy food but build topsoil and ensure that we can grow food well into the future. The more we feed our soil the more it will work to feed us.

Building good compost

Building a good compost pile comes down to maintaining a healthy balance of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water.

As a rule, a proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the compost pile would be 25:1. Green items like fresh grass clippings, vegetable scraps and raw manure have a higher amount of nitrogen than items like dried leaves and wood chips. Too much nitrogen will potentially kill the microorganisms necessary to break down the raw materials in the pile, leaving a stinky, slimy mess. Too much carbon will result in a stagnant pile that doesn’t break down at all.

The compost pile needs to be turned every week or so to incorporate oxygen, allowing the magic biology to work. And when it comes to water, think of your pile as a rung out sponge. You want the pile to be moist but not dripping wet.

So what can go into the pile?

Good Carbon (Browns)

  • Spent straw
  • Spent hay (only if your pile is hot enough to burn any potential weed seeds)
  • Wood chips
  • Sawdust
  • Wood ash (limited amounts)
  • Bark
  • Pine needles
  • Dried leaves
  • Paper or cardboard
  • Eggshells
  • Corn stalks
  • Dead plant remains (disease free)
  • Dryer lint

Good Nitrogen (Greens)

  • Grass clippings
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Rotting vegetables and fruit
  • Coffee grounds
  • Animal manure
  • Animal litter or bedding (soaked in urine and manure)
  • Dead animals
  • Offal, blood or carcass leftover after livestock butcher
  • Green leaves

What NOT to put into the compost pile

  • Cooked meat
  • Dog or cat manure
  • Sawdust or wood chips from treated wood
  • Anything sprayed with herbicide (roundup as an example)
  • Weeds that have gone to seed
  • Baked goods

Applying Compost in the Home or Market Garden

Compost should be good and rotted before applying to the garden bed where you expect to immediately grow vegetables. You’ll know when it’s ready when its nice and crumbly and smells like sweet earth. Generally, you’ll want to let your compost pile sit for at least six months, turning often, before it’ll be ready to apply in the garden.

You can apply compost to the garden either in the fall or in the spring. I like to apply it in the spring to eliminate any risk of leaching that might come from heavy rains or snow melt off. I’ll apply a good 3-4 inch layer of compost to a freshly tilled bed, then incorporate it immediately into the topsoil before planting. This way I know it’s going to stay where I need it.

If you apply compost in the fall, make sure you incorporate it into the topsoil. Then cover with silage tarps or plant a cover crop to prevent erosion and leaching.

Another way I’ll use compost is as a mulch around established plants. Raspberries, elderberries and other perennials will get a thick layer of fresh compost around their base, and usually this will be enough to enrich the soil for root development. Fruit trees also get mulched with compost in the spring. I’ll top dress my potato hills with compost after the plants emerge. I’ll do the same with my corn.

Anybody can compost

The great thing about composting is that is can be done almost anywhere, no matter what scale of gardening you are doing. Kitchen scraps from the apartment can go into a small composting can and applied to tomatoes planted in pots on the balcony. The home gardener can use any of the larger composting bins on the market to enrich their planting beds, or build a small compost pile in the corner of the backyard. The farm will generally have lots of space for larger composting.

On our farm, we covet as much carbon as we can find to turn the manure from our pigs and chickens into beautiful organic matter, enriching our crops and pasture.

In just four years we’ve seen how compost has improved our soil where veins of heavy clay made root penetration difficult and where years of production Ag practices compacted the soil and stripped it of its structure and vitality. We have a long way to go, but I’m convinced composting is the way to make our farm healthy and sustainable long into the future.

Outside of soil building, here are a few other benefits composting provides:

  • Using up organic material at home lowers the amount of waste going into the landfill.
  • It teaches our kids how nature was designed to sustain itself and how to care for the environment
  • Composting promotes a producer mindset rather than a culture built strictly on consuming
  • It’s fun

Are you composting?

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