I’m an extreme composter.
I’ve composted in tumblers, in pallet enclosures, in the ground, in an old fridge, in 55 gallon drums, in layered no-till beds, in kitchen worm bins, in the rain, on a train, with a goat on a boat, etc.
There’s a lot of “common knowledge” on composting. Some of it is good, and some of it is just sissified repetition of info promulgated by various government agencies and other ninnies. I’ve read literally thousands of pages on the topic and done much more experimenting than the average gardener.
If you listen to the experts, composting sounds like a pain in the neck. No meat! No bread! No oils! No paper! Make a nice set of boxes! Put hardware cloth and motion detectors in to control rats! Get the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio right! Ensure a thermophilic reaction! Ask your neighbors first! Keep it moist, but not wet! Use an activator! Throw on diatomaceous earth! Add lime! Check with local authorities! Turn it monthly—weekly—daily—hourly! YIKES!
No wonder we keep throwing banana peels in the trash. It’s time to take a deep breath and rethink composting and why we do it.
The Ground Floor
At a basic level, composting is simply a process of rot you can harness to feed your plants. To get started right now, you don’t need bins or a mix of “browns and greens.” Compost is like magic—you take “waste” and make it into a resource. Every bit of organic material that passes through your household can be returned to the soil. Got a garden bed? Dig a trench and dump in food scraps, egg shells, bones, leftovers, even junk mail (not the glossy stuff or envelopes with plastic windows, obviously) and then bury it. Congratulations—you’ve just added nutrients back to the soil and there’s no smell, no infrastructure, and little trouble. If you’ve buried it deep enough, the critters aren’t a problem. And as long as you’re not burying piles of sawdust or tons of paper, “nitrogen robbing” won’t be a big deal.
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I confess: I’m neurotic about composting anything and everything, but I’m not neurotic about creating “perfect” compost. I create a few large piles a year to feed my wife’s raised beds and my collection of fruit trees. I just mix a collection of green and brown things together and let nature take its course. If you’ve got some coffee grounds (some coffee shops give them away for free), grass clippings, garden debris, kitchen scraps, and that sort of thing, mix them together in a pile and wet it as you go. It WILL rot, even if it isn’t as fast as you’d like. Turn it when you remember and it will break down faster. Get the mix of carbon and nitrogen correct and it will convert much faster—but even if you’re totally lazy, it will eventually become beautiful compost. I make piles of really rough stuff when I don’t have time for being fancy … and it’s brown and crumbly a year later.
Every time I drive through town, I see piles of palm fronds, leaves, branches, grass clippings, tree trunks, pine needles, and other rich organic matter lying by the road, waiting to be picked up by waste management. People don’t realize what they’re doing! By sending all that organic material off their property, they’re exporting their soil’s fertility … only to later purchase some back in plastic bags marked with numbers like “10-10-10.”
Leaves and grass clippings can be used as mulch or put in a compost pile. Pine needles are good mulch for acid-loving plants such as roses, azaleas, and blueberries. Over time, all that plant material becomes part of the soil again, whether or not you make a nice, neat, highly managed system.
Trees: Living Fertility Factories
Think about it: A tree pulls up nutrients from deep in the soil and uses them, along with solar energy and water, to grow. In crude terms, a tree was designed to be, in part, a massive nutrient and water pump. The roots of your garden crops have a very limited depth and spread. A tree sends roots deep into the earth and far into surrounding properties to gather nutrients. It’s particularly useful as a gatherer of nutrients that have leached into the ground below the reach of lesser plants. What it gathers is then used to build leaves, fruit, wood, etc. When leaves fall in the autumn, they’re not trash—they’re a gift from above. Don’t chuck or burn them (unless you need cooking fuel). You’re leaving your piece of ground less fertile every time you do. You’re also keeping that tree from cycling nutrients back into the ecosystem in a sustainable way.
Think about it: How much fertilizer does grass need in order to look lush and green? Plenty. Now look at a piece of forest wilderness. That’s a self-feeding, self-sustaining system. Don’t sever the nutrient loop on your own property.
If you start to see every food scrap, every stick pile, and every fall leaf drop as a source of food for your garden, you’re well on the way to compost self-sufficiency. By following all the silly rules, you end up throwing garden food into the landfill—and you miss a chance to add fertility to your garden.
Be sure to check out my post on how you can compost the “scary” stuff, like meat. You can also get a copy of my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting for lots more inspiration.
For now, though, I recommend you pick a spot and start throwing compostable materials on the ground. Stop worrying about the rules and start composting the way nature does. Composting isn’t complicated. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
David The Good is a Grow Network Change Maker, a gardening expert, and the author of five books you can find on Amazon: Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening, Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, and Push the Zone: The Good Guide to Growing Tropical Plants Beyond the Tropics. Find fresh gardening inspiration at his website TheSurvivalGardener.com and be sure to follow his popular YouTube channel.