Composting: Microbes, Black Gold, and Growing the Best Food
A search of the SurvivalBlog archives will uncover pages and pages of articles mentioning compost and its value in gardening. However, if there was a startup composting guide I missed it. If you are an experienced composter hopefully you can still learn from this article, but everything here will be geared toward someone just starting out. Be warned I don’t use a sophisticated “fast” method. I work with God’s design, and let the microbes do the work. Well-balanced compost takes time–8-to-12 months with this method. This means you need to start a pile now, in order to have it when you need it to grow food. I’ve been running a variety of composting experiments over the past five years and am very happy with my results.
Here is what we are going to cover:
- Nature’s Fertilizer: What compost is, how compost mimics nature, and why it is so good for plants.
- Building Your Bin: How I built my bins, and suggestions for low cost bin systems.
- Managing the Pile: How to build your pile, manage your pile efficiently, and source materials for your pile.
- Using Compost: Recommendations for using compost in your garden for best results.
Most of you probably already know what compost is, or even if you don’t you’ve already experienced it first hand. Compost is simply organic matter that has decayed. If you have ever dug into the leaves during a hike in the woods and turned up the rich dark layer of earth underneath, that is compost and plants LOVE it! In nature compost is formed through 2 main natural processes: the aerobic process (no exercise required) in which oxygen is present and microbes break down the materials producing heat as a byproduct, and the anaerobic process which takes place in low oxygen environments and the material is broken down by fungal colonies. This article will focus on the aerobic method, which is the faster of the two and more common in gardening use.
The two main components of fertile soil are humus (dead organic matter), and rock particles. In the natural world leaves and dead plants accumulate on the surface of the soil and are slowly broken down by the bacteria, fungi, and soil organisms. This creates an upper layer of organic matter (humus) that has many benefits for the soil. The biological life in the soil is supported by this organic matter and a myriad of biological and chemical processes are triggered by this diversity of life and unlocking the nutrients in the soil. Just as bacteria play an important role in our own digestive processes, they also makes nutrients available for plants. Dumping fertilizer may work short term, but it will not improve the biology of the soil and may harm it long term. This means many of the micronutrients plants need to thrive will be absent because you have not cultivated the life of the soil. The result is weaker plants, and more disease and pest pressure (not to mention where will you get fertilizer if the supply chain breaks down?)
When you become a composting gardener, you have switched from being a plant grower, to a microbe farmer with the side job of harvesting delicious and nutritious produce. The reason compost is so good for your plants is because of all the organic matter you add to the soil. This organic matter is teeming with biological life that will promote the natural processes in the soil that unlock nutrients for your plants. Well made compost adds so much more than the bare nutritional value contained within the organic material. Compost also adds the microorganisms that fuel the engine of your soil, extracting the nutrients already present in the soil, and making them bioavailable to your plants. Also, adding micronutrients via rock powders can be a great way to ensure a full spectrum of nutrients for your plants, and by extensions, you! Think of rock powders like rock phosphate, greensand, azomite and others as multivitamins for your soil.
Composting is our way of partnering with God’s original design for plants, and working with the natural system. It is less costly in money, healthier in terms of chemicals and nutrients, and more sustainable than modern large scale farming techniques. I am becoming convinced it is also less labor-intensive when considered within the big picture. The more I use compost the fewer weeds I battle, my garden barely needs watering, I have fewer pests, and less plant disease.
Eliott Coleman puts it well in his book, The New Organic Grower: 
“My own position on these issues is that I simply do not know enough to tamper with the natural system, and I have no desire to do so. I am an admirer of the intricate cyclical systems of the natural world, and I prefer to study them in order to make less work for myself, not more. Even if I thought I knew everything, I would rather let it be done for me by the real experts. The real experts in this case are all the processes that take place in a fertile soil-the interrelated activities of bacteria, fungi, dilute soil acids, chemical reactions, rhizosphere effects, and countless others we are unaware of.”
I recommend this book in general for a home grower looking to grow sustainably and naturally. The chapter on soil fertility especially pertains to this article.
Building Your Bin
Building a bin is not complicated, and there are many ways to build one that will work well. I have also built several bins over the years that worked “poorly” but still made pretty decent compost. I’ll give you a few suggestions of what not to do, and some guidelines on what might work well.
Here is a photo of my current three-bin setup. It is about as simple as can be. I used 4×4 cedar posts for rot resistance. The sides are untreated ⅜” plywood fastened on with exterior screws. The front has a removable top panel so I have easier access to the pile while it is being built, and as the pile fills up I add the top piece back on. I expect to get a couple piles out of each before having to replace the sides. For the process I am outlining you will need 2 piles minimum but can scale up to however many bins you need.
A good size for your pile is roughly 4’ or 5’ square and about 4’ high. This is small enough to be manageable, and allow enough oxygen and moisture into the pile, but large enough to get some good heat going. I do not recommend open sides. I have built piles in the past using mesh wire and had issues with pest infiltration, scattered debris outside the pile, and weeds growing out of the sides of the pile. Switching to solid sides has eliminated those problems and the pile still has enough oxygen to get quite hot. Solid sides also allow the materials to get hot and decay all the way out to the edge of the pile. My wire mesh piles were well composted in the center but not on the edges. I had to throw a lot of material back into another pile because it wasn’t ready to use.
Since plywood prices are presently skyrocketing, here are some other ideas for bin building materials:
-Untreated pallets are just about the right size to fasten 4 pallets in a square and call it done. You can also break down some additional pallets for spare boards to fill in the gaps to make solid sides.
-Straw bales can be stacked in a square to make a bin. When the bales start breaking down in a year or so, they can then be added to your next pile as brown material. No waste!
Managing the Pile
Managing your compost pile is not overly complex. There is a bit of a learning curve, but the good news is that if you screw it up, it will probably still work but just take a little longer. The key to composting aerobically is to build your pile in layers. These layers will be made of two ingredients usually referred to in composting as “brown” organic matter, and “green” organic matter. The terms brown and green can be a little confusing to someone new to composting. “Brown” matter refers to dry, woody, or stalky matter that is usually high in carbon (examples: dry grass, straw or hay, wood shavings/sawdust, dead leaves, soil). “Green” matter refers to relatively fresh, moist, and nitrogen-rich plant matter (examples: grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, non-woody yard waste, weeds, manures). Notice that many of these materials do not match their category color and most materials actually contain a little bit of each.
The key takeaway is finding balance. Too much brown material makes for a dry pile with very little for microbes to eat. The materials will also take much longer to break down. Too much green material makes the pile too wet, and the material will compress into a slimy mat with very little oxygen. The excess of moisture and lack of oxygen will inhibit microbe growth and make the pile go anaerobic, and it will take longer to decompose.
Natural compost is a mix of these two ingredients. We’ll follow the natural pattern in our pile. I typically start off with a thicker than average brown layer on the bottom of the pile, maybe 4-6 inches thick if I’m using straw or hay. Then I add my first green layer. Green layers are 2-3 inches if the material is fine and will pack tightly (ex: grass clippings, kitchen scraps), or 4-6 inches thick if the materials are thicker and loose (ex: tomato vines, old garden plants). I then add a 2-3 inch layer of loose brown materials (less if it is dense material like aged wood chips, or soil). I then alternate green and brown layers until the pile is built.
When starting a new pile I like to be able to add several layers at once to get the temperature up quicker, but it doesn’t really matter. Whenever I add a green layer I like to immediately add a brown layer on top. This helps prevent the green matter from drying out in the sun, and helps reduce the number of pests that are attracted to the pile. If you have some compost on hand from a finished pile you can throw a few shovel fulls in your new pile. The finished compost already has established bacteria colonies in it that will act as a “seed” to kickstart the biological processes in your new pile.
A layer of grass clippings as a green layer:
A layer of straw as a brown layer:
As you build your pile it will compress and shrink under the added weight, and you will keep building it back up. The pile in the photo immediately above was about 18” taller a couple weeks ago. I will continue to fill this pile and let it settle a few more times and then move on to start the next pile.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)