Composting doesn’t need to be complicated. Sometimes composting just means dropping your harvest waste and trimmings right onto the garden. In permaculture, this is known as chop-and-drop. And it is the simplest and easiest way to get organic matter into the garden.
If you want to know how to make the best compost, well, there really isn’t just one way to go about it. So I’ll go through a few different options so you can pick which one works best for you in your situation.
How do I compost? Let me count the ways.
There really are many ways that you can create excellent compost. From using worms, to cold composting, to hot composting, compost can be done in oh, so many ways.
Here are a few ways to make compost that don’t involve making big piles and turning them.
Composting directly in the garden
You can put your kitchen scraps directly into the garden. Dig a trench along the edge of the path (if there’s stuff growing in the beds), and bury your compost. This can sometimes create a problem: if it isn’t properly aerated it won’t compost it will just rot, and you’ll have a soggy, stinky mess in there. So make sure to mix it with some carbon (brown) material, and ensure that air can get in there.
Not every scrap that comes out of the garden goes into the compost pile. Some of it just gets dropped into the garden, to break down and feed the soil in place. This is a perfectly acceptable way to compost. Sometimes.
If you are in a heavy slug area like I am, chop and drop in the garden could be the equivalent of building luxury slug hotels. They do love to have a nice covered area to stay cool and hide out from the gardener.
So while this can be a quick and easy way to keep the garden waste in the garden, it is not always the best choice. I do it in the hot summer months, when the slugs don’t seem to visit much; but I’ll stop doing it as fall approaches and the cooler weather puts out the call for the slugs to attack.
Another way to compost directly in the garden – and something I want to try this year – is to build worm towers. These are basically just buckets or large diameter pipes with holes drilled into the sides and bottom. They are then mostly buried into the garden, and the worms and compost materials are dropped inside.
The worms stay in the tower, if you use true compost worms, and the goodness created by their worm castings makes its way into the surrounding soil. Plus you get the bonus of pulling out some castings if you want to, and using them elsewhere.
Our compost and garden have quite a good worm population, so I think I will try it first without buying and adding true compost worms, just to see what happens. Adding some manure in there will probably help to attract them.
I’m going to place a few towers around the garden, and observe how the plants nearest to the tower fare. I’m thinking they’ll like the boost. I’ll be doing this experiment this summer in the garden, and will add a link here to the write up of my observations.
If you like things really tidy, you can purchase a store bought compost bin. These come in all shapes and sizes, from tumbling barrels, to stationary upright barrels.
You can also build compost bins out of wood scraps. Used pallets seem to be a popular choice, but you can really use anything, as long as it’s not treated wood.
Worm farms are another way to take care of your garden scraps, and feed the soil. You can either have a worm farm in a bathtub, or a fancy store bought worm farm. And worm farms are a great way to compost your kitchen scraps if you live in an apartment. You can get a small worm farm!
Even if you don’t have a garden, you can use the worm castings for your potted plants. You can also just take it outside and add it to any flower gardens in your area. Or you could take it to a friend who gardens. Just another way apartment dwellers can contribute to creating healthy soil!
For our home compost, we make a circle out of chicken wire and layer it with compost materials. It’s quick and easy. I suggest attaching the ends together with something that is easy to undo; then, when you want to take the compost out you just open up the wire and there’s your compost. Then you can put the wire cage back together and refill it with your turned compost.
And of course, if you have lots of waste and resources to use, you can just make a big ol’ pile or windrow. But on this small property, there really isn’t a place to do that. That’s more for doing on a larger property, and for people who have equipment large enough to turn a big pile.
I generally do a combination of chop-and-drop and chicken wire composting. Some garden trimmings just get dropped on the beds to act as mulch, and decompose in place. But I also do bulk composting, using natural resources that we gather hither and yon. If I had (or when I have) my own property, I would like to have a series of wooden bins, so I can turn the compost from one bin to the next, and when it gets to the end, it’s done!
Then again, if (when) I have my own property, I will have lots of chickens, and they will do a large portion of my composting for me! Gotta love chickens.
Hot or Cold Compost
There are two kinds of compost piles: a hot compost pile and a cold compost pile. A hot compost – also known as the Berkley Method (developed at the UofC in Berkley) – is one that is piled up and left to heat up, then is turned, left to heat up, turned again, etc. Here is Geoff Lawton once again, showing us how to build a hot compost.
A cold compost pile is built up in the same way, but it is not turned as many times; and sometimes not at all. Our compost piles here are basically cold compost piles. But I am going to do some turning here at the end of their life cycle, to finish them off, in anticipation of gardening season!
There are advantages to both systems – hot or cold compost – and it really depends on your space, time, and ability to actually turn a big pile of compost material every three days for two weeks.
Finding compost resources
We love our compost around here. Finding natural resources to put into our compost piles is a game we love to play. There are lots of trails and cutlines in the area that offer access to all kinds of goodies, and we’re always on the lookout.
We found some old, breaking down piles of wood chips at an old sawmill, which were a great treasure! We’ve put it through the composting process, used it as fill behind the rock wall we built, and put it into the garden as paths or used it as fill around the edge where the trees are.
Another resource that we’ve decided to use is the discarded peat moss and perlite that pot growers take out and dump in the bush. I just can’t let that precious resource go to waste! It gets rained on quite a bit, rinsing it of any linger fertilizer; and then we put it through the composting process. I think that this will make it safe to use in the garden.
The third resource we’re excited about is elk manure. The area where I live hosts a fairly substantial elk population – although I’ve never actually seen one yet – and they kindly leave their droppings lying around for us to find. It’s like the poop version of an Easter egg hunt!
The dog gets exercise, we get exercise, and strange as it may seem, it’s kinda fun. I wish we had kept track of how much elk manure we’ve brought home; but suffice to say that it plays a major role in our many compost piles. You could also gather deer manure, which we often find. What animals live in your area that you could follow behind and clean up after?
And there’s also seaweed, which brings many trace minerals with it, so it’s great to add to the compost. We haven’t collected a ton of seaweed, but we pick up a bucket or two now and then.
Because each of our compost piles was created at a different time, each contains a different mixture of ‘stuff’. Some was started when there was a lot of green waste coming out of the garden, and some contains only elk manure, peat moss, some kitchen scraps, and maybe a little seaweed. But they all also have urine poured on them (we both pee in jars).
Layering the browns with the greens, we fill up a wire cage, and then move on to the next. We have filled 12 in the last 6 months or so, ranging from 3 to 4 feet across, and 3 to 4 feet tall.
It’s March now, and I’m taking the chicken wire off all the piles and mixing them together into one big windrow. Some are fresher than others, so I’m going to mix it up, cover it, and then turn the windrow a few times before it goes on the garden.
Final thoughts on composting
Here’s what I have to say about composting:
As you can see, I can’t really tell you how to make the best compost, as it really depends on where you live, what you’re growing, and what resources you have to use. But if you make no compost at all, and you’re a gardener, you’re missing out on some of the best soil food for your garden. And a healthy soil, makes healthy food.
There are many ways to compost. But the best way to compost, is the way that works for you, and is appropriate for your garden and climate. So just do it. If it’s too difficult or complicated, you’re not likely to keep it up; so keep it simple.
For a healthy, soil feeding compost, diversity is key. The more different components you can add to your compost the better it will be, because each ingredient in the compost will bring with it its own microbes, bacteria, minerals, and other bits and bobs, and that will just make the mix stronger.
So take a look around your place, your neighborhood – wherever you go – and see what you can find. Then let me know what interesting ways you’ve discovered to find compost materials, or to set up composting bins, buckets, barrels, or piles in general. We can all learn from one another.
Health, Hope & Happiness