Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What is Compost?

What is compost?

This is a loaded question. . The resources and sources for compost varies like compost itself. Let me share what we have discovered and learned since going sustainable and biodynamic.

To quote a Garden Guru, “Mother Nature has been successfully composting for billions of years without human help.”

In the microcosm of our garden backyards jump starting a compost source is another matter. It is very common to find backyards sterile so it is important to create and heal the soil so that planting can be successful. True organic compost takes time. But, it is so worth the wait.

Basic Organic Compost.

  1. Turn kitchen scraps and garden trimming into rich organic compost. We compost just about everything except for plastics and metals. All our metal items we either reuse or recycle and plastics are recycled. Plastics that can not be recycled are trashed. We have been composting all our paper goods too. We invested in a good shredder and shred all our paper items. This includes magazines, junk mail, light weight boxes, newspaper, envelopes etc.
  2. Manure. We have chickens so their poo and bedding is added to the compost piles. If you have a pickup, many dairy farmers or equestrian centers would be glad to give you manure (don't forget sheep and goat farms - smaller organic farms are best if they are willing to give away their manure)
    1. Manure is an excellent amendment to any soil. Manure is a source of many nutrients including: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and many others. However, nitrogen is often the main nutrient of concern for most crops.

Type of Garden

Best Type of Manure

Best Time to Apply


cow, horse

early spring


chicken, cow, horse

fall, spring

Root Crops

chicken, cow, horse

fall, spring

There is a great deal of discussion about the use of compost from compost toilets. I am strongly advising against using human waste compost, especially around food crops. IMPORTANT: Do not use cat, dog, pig or human feces (manure) in composts or gardens it can spread disease and parasites into the garden, and eventually you or your family members.

Things not to put in the compost.

    1. Any Type Of Plastic
    2. Foam
    3. Metal
    4. Weeds (personal recommendation)
    5. Pet Droppings
    6. Dead Vertebrate Animals
    7. Uncooked Meats
    8. Cooked Meats
    9. Diary Products (Except Egg Shells)

i. Important Note: Many communities have restrictions on composting and/or storage of manure. Check local regulations before your start. Where large compost piles may not be allowed, you may find compost bins are accepted.

Compost Bins: There are several ways to create compost bins. You can use any material available but the key is to have holes or slots that allow oxygen to enter and speed up compost. We have four versions.

Slotted palate cube

Ours contains all our garden compost and chicken bedding and poo. We have found healthy grubs and earthworms in our compost bin. All signs of a healthy compost. Viking Dad sifted from the bottom of our pile and was richly rewarded with the most amazing soil. It was used to fill the raised beds and potato boxes.

Heap compost aka Mother Natures Methods

Some gardeners will put a wire fence around a heap compost to contain the amebic sprawl of the heap. We have one that contains our grass and tree cuttings. I love heap compost because they are easy to make and it allows Mother Nature to do her magic. Mother Nature also invites critters to move in and make homes. We have rabbits, field mice and raccoon living in one heap.

Black plastic open ended bins

This one contains a majority of our household compost and kitchen scraps that don’t go to the chickens. We also throw in all our shredded papers. We actually have three of these lined up so that they can be sifted. We learned from experience that we had to bury our kitchen scraps deeper in an open bin like this to keep the fly population down. However, once the chickens found good grubs inside the bins the fly populations went down.

Black plastic “worm” bin.

This type of bin is to help create compost from worms. Red worms and earth worms are a healthy and natural addition to any garden compost. You don’t want blow fly larvae however. This means the composting is not healthy and too hot. Many good garden supply centers have red worms to purchase. In time a good healthy garden will attract earthworms and this is always a good sign. Worm teas or compost teas are often made from the liquids that accumulate in these bins. I haven't used compost teas but certain gardeners will swear by them for flowers.

What to look for in healthy compost pile

Key Elements to Compost

i. Water - Keep the compost just damp. Too much water will ruin your compost.

ii. Balance - Add a mix of green and brown materials to make a well balanced compost.

iii. Air - Turn the pile over every few weeks or every 5 to 6 days if using a bin.

iv. Size - A compost pile will mature quickest if it is at least one cubic yard.

v. Microorganisms - These help break down the compost material. They come from the soil or old compost you add and from the earth on which the compost pile is built.

The Best Mix in a Compost

i. All compostable materials are either carbon or nitrogen-based. Building a healthy compost pile is simple: maintain a working balance between these two.

ii. Carbon - Referred to as browns, carbon-rich matter (peels, thin branches, stems, dried leaves, bits of wood, bark dust or sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters, conifer needles, egg shells, hay, peat moss, wood ash) gives compost its light, fluffy body

iii. Nitrogen - Referred to as greens, nitrogen or protein-rich matter (food scraps, manures, leafy materials like lawn clippings and green leaves) provides raw materials for making enzymes.

Turn, turn, turn: The more air it gets, the quicker it cooks.

It is recommended to use a pitch fork and physically turn the piles every 3 to 5 days. Now, this is why many people use tumbler compost bins to help turn the piles. Except for the worm bin all our bins need to be turned

Warning Signs that Something is Wrong

Getting the right mix of moisture and the right mix of ingredients in your compost may take a little practice, but most problems can usually be overcome.

Too Wet - Add sawdust or shredded newspaper to help absorb moisture, and turn regularly.

No Heat - Add a source of nitrogen, such as animal manure or blood and bone meal or vegetable scraps.

Dryness - Water lightly. We have this problem in San Diego. We just lightly water the piles. The worm bin we lightly spray the soil to keep it moist otherwise the worms will die.

Fly Development - Fully enclose the compost. Make sure the compost is hot in the centre and turn regularly to ‘cook’ fly and cockroach eggs.

We discovered this problem and quickly started the habit of burying our food and kitchen scraps deeply into the bin. It also prevents rodents.

Too Hot - If the mixture goes grey and smokes, turn and spread it out to cool the compost down.

Strong Smell - All compost releases some smell when it is turned. Reduce smell by keeping the compost damp but not wet.

1.Composts should not smell rotten or foul smelling. It should have a healthy earthy smell. We found that if there was too much of a rotten smell we reduced the food scraps and added more green organic into the pile.

2. By not adding meats, fats, or dairy products in the compost pile will also eliminate any rotten smell.

Biodynamic composting aka “premium organic” takes Organic composting one step further and adds various preps based on the needs of the soil and plants. The Preps and Composting methods are based on Rudolf Steiner’s lectures to farmers in 1929. In his lectures contained within the book Agriculture Courses, Steiner explains the importance of good and healthy compost.

Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Homeopathic preparations made from manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised. Biodynamic practitioners also recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health.

A goal of biodynamic gardeners is to have a feel and connection to what goes into the land thus what goes into our bodies.


Everything on the farm/garden goes into the compost. Except for GMO, artificial, and non organic materials.

Six herbs are added to biodynamic compost.

1. Yarrow: Stimulates the potassium process in organisms

2. Dandelion: Adds oxygen to the soils

3. Stinging Nettle: Positive effect on iron, potassium and magnesium balance.

4.Valerian: The compost heaps are watered down with valerian water.

5. Chamomile: Helps with sulphur and carbon dioxide in the soil.

6.. Oak Bark:The oak tree has deep roots that connect all of us with the land. Adding oak bark to the preps connects all together. The tannic acid also helps any acid loving plants.

I just received my compost preps to plant in the garden. I am looking forward to see how they improve our compost.

Happy Gardening and Composting.......

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