Posted on October 27 2015
Composting Episode 2
by Jason Ross
In Episode One of this series on “Combat Gardening,” Chad Wade had us on the edge of our seats talking about compost. We heard about the basics of how microorganisms turn wood and poop into rich humus. We also learned about how to survive the End of the World without commercial fertilizers.
This Episode, we’re going to talk about how to rack, stack and pack your rotting stuff to maximize your aims. Are you trying to work your compost like a second job in order to get good compost, fast? Are you more interested in saving time and letting nature take it’s course? Are you living in the city and you don’t want your neighbors to bitch about the horrendous smell?
Never fear. Chad Wade is here.
High Efficiency/High Effort Compost
If you’re going to pump out compost quickly, you’ll need to spend a lot of time on it. Chad’s recommendation is a compost pile that is carefully constructed and worked frequently. You can dig a hole and fill it with compost or pile it on top of the ground. Layer it with leaves, kitchen scraps, livestock manure, fine sawdust, dry straw, green grass and local soil, in no particular order. You’re shooting for one-third green material and two-thirds brown material. Grind everything up in a small wood chipper before adding it to the compost pile or rotating barrel. Keep the water content perfect. This means that your compost mix should just barely stick to itself when you clench it in your fist. Use soil activators to ensure that the biological process is underway. Either buy these online or use fertile local soil, like from a local forest floor, to introduce the perfect mix of biota from your area. Using a shovel, pitchfork, rotating drum or front-end loader, turn the mixture every few days. Add water as necessary. As the green breaks down, you can add more, but don’t overload with green or the pile will start to smell (worse.) The trick here is to flip and augment your pile very frequently.
Timeframe: if you nail this (it’s hard BTW), you can have compost within three to six weeks.
Medium Efficiency/Medium Effort Compost
Chad likes high-performance in everything. That and he’s impatient. So he tries for high efficiency compost. I’m OK with medium performance from my compost, so I work large volumes over long periods of time. I’m OK if my compost takes a year to reach perfection. So, I don’t grind or chop my composting materials very much. Sometimes, I throw whole plants in the mix. Also, I only flip the compost every couple months. I keep my moisture balance as exact as possible, but my piles spend a lot of time in the cooler ranges of composting — trusting the slower bacteria to do their job. Every time I flip the compost, I add water and whatever kitchen green has accumulated in my barrels. I also get barrels of green from my prepper bro who owns a juicery in town. Occasionally, I’ll add horse manure (it’s less “hot” than cow manure.) With this method, you’ll be bummed to see that the larger chunks of wood and brown take longer to break down. That’s a bummer because you want them small enough to trap water and nutrients in your soil. Big chunks of wood don’t do your plants much good.
Timeframe: I’ve turned out decent compost in about six months using this method.
Low Efficiency/Low Effort Compost
If you don’t want to flip your compost because you’re lazy like me, then layer your materials in a sensible way and let mother nature do her thing. Maybe you’re making compost just as a prep and you pretty much know you won’t be using it unless the world goes to shit. That’s ok. Nature will do the flipping for you. Just make sure that you lay down your compost in thin layers. Even Mother Nature will require years to break down big, wood mulch that’s two feet thick. You need to layer it thinner — maybe four inches thick — and sandwich it between layers of green, leaves, manure, soil and then more wood chips or sawdust. Picture gravity utilizing water to pull the elements of the compost down through your layers. Bacteria will work its way up the layers as well. You need to water the layers, though, when you don’t get enough natural rainwater. Your layers will be a little starved for oxygen because you’re not flipping them, but the process still works. If you’re feeling spunky one Saturday and you do flip your compost, that’s great! You can flatten out the pile and continue to layer right on top. Layering does require a little bit of forethought so that you have a good balance of materials on-hand when you form the layers. So, you’ll be storing your materials beforehand. It’s worth the effort to store greens (kitchen scraps, manure, coffee grounds, green grass) in a sealed 55 gallon drum or the slimy smell will be a deal-killer for the ole lady and the neighbors.
Timeframe: layered compost, in my experience, takes about a year to mature.
For city dwellers, a compost rotator might be the best option. You don’t need to store anything if you’re going to chuck it into a rotator. It’s harder to keep your greens and browns balanced, though, because it’s hard to measure the constant flow of material being tossed into the rotator. No worries, though. Just give it your best guess. The problem I’ve had with rotators is keeping the moisture right. You’ll have to check them frequently. In my region, the compost tends to dry out fast — and then the process abruptly stops.
When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, my prepper father kept a compost pile in our backyard behind the garage. It was a four-foot stack of lawn clippings, leaves and kitchen waste. I don’t think he flipped it once. It just sat there for thirty years, slowly growing larger. The “Big One” never came, so we didn’t ever tap into that behemoth pile of compost. I’m sure it would’ve been a blessing if we had ever been forced to grow food in our backyard. Best of all, it was free (and it was easier to throw lawn waste on the pile than bagging it up for the garbage man.)
I can’t think of a better FREE prep than compost. Plants don’t grow for crap without fertilizer, at least not in my gardens. Keeping a compost pile actually makes those “heirloom apocalypse seeds” you keep in the garage somewhat sensible.
No matter how much care you’re willing to put into making compost, you should probably get on it.