Sunday, October 2, 2011

Compost Happens

Making compost isn’t rocket science. Admittedly, upon deep scientific analysis the soil web is highly complex. But Nature knows her stuff. Don’t get in her way. Work with her, embrace her as your partner, and she’ll ably handle all those complexities for you. In other words, quit worrying so much.
Compost booklets lay out instructions with percentages for “green” versus “brown.” Catalogs eagerly sell you compost starters and compost turning devices and elaborate (expensive) compost containers. You don’t need any of it.
Short of the possible (and rare) exception of petrified wood, if you leave things-that-used-to-be-plants alone in a moist pile for long enough, eventually they’ll break down. The issue is, how quickly.
As gardeners with massive amounts of vegetables to grow in order to feed people, on deadened urban soils overdue for compost, we’re wanting to speed up the process. We want compost to happen relatively quickly and efficiently. We want to optimize retained nutrients. Compost will happen. But achieving rich, fast, hot compost is an art form.
Veteran bread bakers understand that the quantities of flour and liquid, rise and baking times they use will vary widely depending on the humidity of the air and the temperature of the kitchen. Veteran composters realize that “green” versus “brown” vary widely with weather conditions and shade patterns and the relative dryness of the materials you started out with.
When practicing an art form, the trick is to get personal with your product. Observe and interact. In the case of compost, touch it (yes, with your bare hands). Feel it. Smell it. Some gardeners even taste it.
If your in-process compost is getting crumbly and overly dry, add water and turn it. If it’s sticky and stinky and overly wet, add dry stuff (dry leaves, straw, shredded newspaper or junk mail) and turn it to bring it back into balance. If it’s not warm, turn it. If it’s in searing summer heat, turn it and give those live compost critters a little shade from the sun’s beating rays. When you keep the soil critters in mind, a lot of this becomes common sense.
If an ant colony has moved in (tons of ants, to excess), it is probably too dry. In Southern California, dryness is our biggest problem with compost. Particularly in warm weather, we have to water our compost piles!
If it’s not alive at all, water it and turn it. Then bring in a quart or so of “starter” – live compost from a friend’s active pile. Bury this precious black gold in the middle of your turned pile and jump-start your population of soil critters.
Entire books and websites have been devoted to the finer details of making compost. Realize that these are all about optimizing rich, fast, hot compost. But compost will happen, even if you ignore it, and the less-ideal stuff works too. At home, my husband and I have overcooked some batches. At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we’ve used some batches before they were completely “done.” I’ve worked with some near-perfect material and some well-past-prime material. None of these have “harmed” our garden. Considering all of these within the context of the current state of most of our city soils, I’d say any homemade compost is a great benefit.
There are probably as many types of compost piles and techniques as there are composting gardeners. You don’t have to buy a bin. You can make one from wire, from wood, from found materials. Or you can do it in an open pile. You can do it on top of bare dirt. You can even do it on top of a hard surface like concrete, although direct contact with bare dirt will make things easier for you because any resident soil organisms will come to help, plus they’ll have a place to retreat to in times of drought or less-than-ideal conditions.
Because Nature is so eager to make compost, there are many successful ways to the same result. There simply isn’t a wrong way to make compost. Just start.

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