Practical Permaculture – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

Currant

“Inside The Currant Bush” – © chriscondello 2013 – Red Currant – Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery – Holland Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I do not photograph piles of compost… I just don’t do it… I don’t want to look at photographs of steaming piles… So I don’t make you look at them… These red currants are available at Garden Dreams…

Most of you probably know that I am not a fan of urban compost, very few people know how to properly manage a compost pile… And even fewer are willing to take the time to actually flip the pile every once in a while… Hell… I know people who have spinning compost barrels that only require you to move your arm a little bit… And they still don’t do it… Unless that barrel has a timer hooked up to a motor… The barrel is not getting spun… And in turn… The entire neighborhood smells like someone left a Christmas ham in their trunk till August…

Compost, can simply be defined as the controlled decomposition of organic matter, that is really all there is to it. People try to complicate it for profit sake… But if you just put your organic scraps in a pile in your yard… Eventually they will break down…

Very few people realize this next little fact, but, compost and mulches should ideally be indigenous to the climate you are working in. Tropical plants will often not decompose in temperate climates. Furthermore, they can also often harbor bad bacteria or exotic invasive weed seeds. What I am saying is… If pests and diseases hitch-hike all around the country on plants… Imagine what could end up in your mulch… Keep your compost and mulches as local as possible…

Plants and organic material need moisture to decompose… So take all of those black plastic compost barrels I see all over Pittsburgh, and throw them right in the garbage… They do not work… And you will not be happy… Compost is always better off in an open air situation, oxygen is required for decomposition… The more… The better… Those little black barrels become cess pools… Not compost… You will end up dumping the contents into a pile anyways… And even that is a pain in the ass…

Compost will also not break down until it has reached a temperature of 122° F, and it will not get any hotter than 158° F. Dry and hot climates will require shade and moisture. Cool and wet climates may require some cover. When working in the tropics you can compost much larger material than in the temperate zone due to the climate being hot and humid.

In the temperate zone, all high-carbon, slow to break down material should be shredded. The more surface area you can create on your material, the faster it will break down. Shredding is not just about creating surface area, it is about facilitating the handling and turning of the compost pile. Straw and large branches tend to get tangled around each other, this will make the turning of your pile damn near impossible… The smaller your material… The better… Ideally, a compost pile should be flipped every two days… But once in a while will work fine… It’s better than never…

As a last-minute side note… Or little golden nugget of information… Whichever you choose… When it comes to shredable materials available in the suburbs… Freshly fallen trees are gold… Specifically speaking… Branches under 3″… You see… The cambium layer is the part of the tree responsible for nutrient movement… The smaller the branch… The higher the ratio of cambium layer to hardwood… When shredded… Small branches should always be composted… Or at least used for mulch… Use the good stuff when you can get your hands on it…

Bocking14

“Bocking 14” – © chriscondello 2013 – Comfrey – Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – When you have a pile of yard debris… Plant comfrey around it… As time goes on… Cut the comfrey and throw it on your pile… It will speed up decomposition considerably…

Compost activators can be used, but should be placed directly in the middle of the pile for maximum efficiency. Believe it or not… Recently deceased animals make a great activator… Fish, comfrey, yarrow, urine and nettles will also work… Many stores and catalogs now sell “compost activators”… My opinion is to steer clear of them and go with something directly out of your garden… Personally… I like yarrow or comfrey… Peeing on my compost pile would not go over well in my neighborhood… And the cats would find the fish no matter how I buried it…

Compost is typically a low-maintenance activity… Though many a teacher today likes to turn it into a two-hour… $100 class… I find that it is relatively easy to make… But judging by the search engine terms people are using to find my blog… More of you have problems with compost than I thought… In my experience… The issues associated with bad compost stems from a simple lack of nitrogen in the pile. Hence the nitrogen rich activator like Comfrey… Or fish… This problem is commonly observed as a white fungus inside of a pile that smells bad… In the city… Grass clippings are the easy to find source of nitrogen… Carbon is the tricky one…

Properly aged compost, will not resemble any of the material it started out as… Think dark black soil… It should have an earthy smell, with hints of vanilla and almonds… Just kidding… As long as it does not smell like ammonia… You are fine… A pile that starts off at 3′ tall, will shrink considerably as the pile ages. You will know you have the formula right when your pile loses very little volume as it ages.

Flies, though annoying, are actually a welcomed addition to your compost pile. In urban environments flies may be considered more of a pest than anything. A simple way to avoid flies around your compost heap is to place all fruits and veggies on the inside of the pile, if you surround them with carbon matter you basically hide them. Once your compost breaks down, you will not have as much of a smell, or fly problem.

Insects and animals will die in your compost, that is why there is no such thing as a vegetarian compost pile… Insects and rodents do not count as vegetables… Unless there is some new diet I haven’t heard about yet… Books will constantly say you can’t compost meat, or fish… This is BULLSHIT!.. Entire road kills can be composted as long as you put them in the middle… Besides… I have smelled compost piles that would make roadkill smell like posies… Now I’m not recommending composting the neighborhood cat… Or throwing meat scraps in your small urban compost pile… What I am saying is more that plant matter will decompose in your compost pile… Don’t be overly disturbed if you find a dead rodent in your pile… because it happens… And it does not hurt the compost… Or you…

Books will also warn about composting certain weeds, or weeds that have gone to seed… This is also bullshit… A compost pile that reaches the proper temperature will cook the seeds… If you are still worried… Cover the aged pile with a black tarp for a couple of days… The added heat will typically finish the job. Often times, seeds germinating in your compost pile are often indicators of germination conditions… Instead of taking it as a bad sign… Take it as a good one… Figure out what type of weed they are… And google them… You will probably end up back on my blog…Regardless… Look at it as a learning experience… If seeds are germinating… You got something right…

PghPetunias

“Pittsburgh Petunias” – © chriscondello 2013 – My Garden – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Plant petunias and question everything…

I’m going to add another last-minute nugget of information… A heavy black tarp is a very effective garden bed making tool… Mark off the area you want your garden… Cover it with the black tarp… And let it sit in the sun for a few weeks… The lack of light coupled with the heat created will typically kill all weeds… Including turf grass… And cook any seeds that happen to be in the soil… This is the slow cousin of sheet mulching… Use it where a mound of compost would not be appropriate…

Given the high nutrient content of compost, often the only seeds that will germinate in your pile are climax species, and mineral accumulators. Weeds are actually one of the best things you can compost, if the weeds in your garden are absorbing all of your hard-earned nutrients, it would be silly to just throw them away… Compost everything…

To end this post… I really just want to say… Compost is really just a pile of decomposing organic waste in your backyard… It will smell… And it will attract bugs… So don’t put it next to your neighbors kitchen window…Compost should be in contact with the soil… And exposed to the elements… Man will try to sell you fancy containers… And expensive additives… When in reality … These are nothing more than leaky garbage cans…

Air exposure… In my experience… Is all you need to solve most problems… If you suspect something is awry… Put a fork in it…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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10 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

  1. Lynda says:

    We disposed of our ‘black barrel’ years ago. Now I have wire corrals and the chickens help us to keep it turned. Great post, Chris!

    PS: Petru sent me. 😉

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  2. petrujviljoen says:

    Chris, I think it is in this blog that you mention you planting a garden in an area where there is trouble. This reads as an attempt to heal that place. This is where artistic practice meets shamanistic practice. We all do it from time to time. I do think that art, religion and healing work from the same nerve, or source, we just go about doing things differently. Artists particularly, often meet the shaman or healer within, sometimes to their own surprise. The stone triads you’ve been making in Fick’s Park, they are ancient healing symbols from India. Should the garden at the trouble spot you mention fall in this category, I think you should record the process photographically, with text, your own, quoted from others if you like, and consider this including in the exhibition I mentioned. Maybe add something more permanent that is not so easily damaged. This garden, and the potholes filled with water you played with, adding food colouring and flowers, is not just decorating the damaged. It is an attempt at uplifting, healing, making good. I think you should begin to take yourself seriously. The stuff is there, you’ve done it, the intention is clear. There’s a Swedish artist, for the life of me I don’t remember his name, and I’m one place and the book where I’d find his work is in another, carves the most beautiful mandalas on stone and places it at spots where there’s been trouble in an effort at healing that place.

    Petru

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  3. singingbirdartist says:

    another trick for peeps in temperate climes can be to dig/scoop trenches/drills where things are to grow and put half done compost at the bottom, then soil, then the seedling. i did this with horse droppings, comfrey leaves, nettles too, and as it continues to ‘turn’ it gives off heat that helps the seedling on its way, and helps protect from late frosts. it also helps with improving poor soil drainage 😉

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  4. Strangely, my compost heap doesn’t seem to smell….. maybe it’s too small or it doesn’t contain the kind of material which smells noticeably!?!

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  5. petrujviljoen says:

    I first became vegetarian because of health reasons, I don’t trust what they feed animals for the market. It then became ethical as I went along. I can’t even wear shoes made of leather, can’t eat jelly (gelatin is made of pig’s trotters) and so on. However, your theory that insects and rodents get into the compost pile would be par for the course and I’m not too disturbed. Just this morning, I planted a tiny sage into a larger pot, and only because I didn’t have the energy to dig up lawn to make a new bed. I mixed the soil with a dose of compost that broke down or became ‘soil’ again very nicely. Took a long time. I think there’s a good dose of monkey poo in it too, they love digging up my compost pile (a smallish one) for food. I’ll use the advice to cover a new area for gardening with tarpaulin, or flattened cardboard to kill off the lawn first. I have yarrow and comfrey growing so I use that in the compost too.

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  6. This is a cool blog. Thanks for sharing practical gardening info as well as your philosophy and poetry, and art. You are talented–the blog is really nice looking. Also, thanks for liking one of my posts!

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  7. Awesome post! I learned more from this than the hours I spent reading commercial sites. Never heard the bit about deceased animals….we seem to have an abundance of those here recently.

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  8. Due to my extensive urban gardening with lack of any storage space I have a quick fix compost method. We use bags made from mesh that are a suitable size that we can lift and carry. When we clean any area, we chop up all the cuttings and branches and mix them with any other green matter in the bags. These get placed down the alley with a good watering in each bag. Once a week we lift and shake up each bag and water it. We do sometimes use heavily diluted urine as an activator but only once per pile. We never use food in these piles, all food goes into the worm bins. After 4 weeks the bag mulch will have started to breakdown a lot already and we use it in this state. It never smells.

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  9. Cathy says:

    Excellent advice Chris!

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